Battling for the heart and soul of home-schoolers

Conservative fundamentalists have set the agenda for kids taught at home -- now they're aiming to influence public education.

Published October 2, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

As more parents have felt alienated, frustrated or unserved by American schools, home schooling has taken off. The number of kids taught at home in the U.S. has more than doubled in the past five years, zooming to an estimated 1.7 million and growing annually at an estimated 15 percent clip. Young home-schoolers are consistently scoring beyond their grade levels on standardized tests, while home-schooled high school students are snapping up places at elite colleges, many of them after walking away with top honors in national academic competitions.

Recently George W. Bush mixed home schooling with presidential politics in a letter to a Texas home-schooler -- now circulating widely on national home-school e-mail listservs -- in which he enthusiastically praises home schooling and vows to fight for legislation that would allow families to set aside $5,000 tax-free annually to pay for the educational expenses of teaching at home.

Contrary to stubborn stereotypes, Bush is not preaching to the converted in targeting voters who home-school. An exhaustive look at home schooling released this year by former Department of Education home-school researcher Patricia Lines exploded the stereotype that most home-schoolers are conservative fundamentalists seeking to isolate themselves from blasphemous school systems.

These days, she says, the plurality of home-schooling parents say they're motivated to teach at home by reasons familiar to most of us: They want to bypass the inflexible bureaucratic aspects of school and tailor learning to students in a way that teachers in classrooms simply cannot. And they are more diverse than ever before, reflecting a wide range of ethnicities, incomes and approaches to learning. (In a Florida state survey, only one-third of home-schoolers said they teach at home for religious reasons.)

Yet this new diversity of home-schoolers has brought to a righteous boil a battle that has simmered for years in the home-schooling community. Despite significant changes in the size and political leanings of the home-schooling movement, a coalition of organizations has dominated since the early '80s the public face and political advocacy of those who teach at home.

The lead group in what is known as "the four pillars of home schooling" is the Home School Legal Defense Association, an organization run by politically active fundamentalist conservatives who not only maintain a tight grip on the public debate of home-schooling issues but, with a research institute, a lobbying organization and a new home-schooling "college" under their direction, have extended the reach of the HSLDA to issues affecting public schools.

The remaining three "pillars" are: Sue Welch, publisher of the leading conservative Christian home-schooling magazine, the Teaching Home, which prints in each issue contacts and workshops for each HSLDA state affiliate; Brian Ray, president of the HSLDA-subsidized National Home Education Research Institute; and Gregg Farris, who for years has organized conservative Christian home-school conferences and workshops and remains on the board of the HSLDA-affiliated National Center for Home Education.

The pervasive influence that the "pillars" have on home schooling makes less conservative home-schoolers furious, especially in light of HSLDA's tendency to champion as benignly "pro-parent" causes that are pointedly conservative. The HSLDA is on the record, for instance, as vociferously in favor of corporal punishment and gun ownership and against gay rights and the United Nations.

The group's pervasive political focus leads some critics to charge that in addition to acting as a home-school advocacy group, the HSLDA is actively pursuing the goals of the religious right. Says Mark Hegener, co-founder of Home Education Magazine, the HSLDA is "part of a socially conservative constituency network using home schooling as a way to further its political goals."

Adds Chip Berlet, analyst at Political Research Associates and longtime observer of the Christian right: "HSLDA shares the same goal with many other groups that want to make schools -- whether public classrooms or home-based ones -- a lot more conservative and fundamentalist Christian." The efforts of HSLDA and similarly motivated organizations, says Berlet, are major players behind recent efforts to mandate creationist curriculum and attack environmental education, sex education and multicultural classroom material.

Founded in 1983 by attorney Michael Farris, a staunchly conservative fundamentalist, the HSLDA got off the ground offering home-schoolers legal representation for an annual fee of $100 per family. Though legal challenges to home-schooling parents are now few, the group still extends the same offer and claims a membership of 250,000 children from 70,000 families. As it nears its 20th anniversary, the HSLDA also boasts significant political clout on national educational issues, even though, say its critics, with less than one-sixth of the estimated home-schooling population in its membership, the HSLDA does not advocate for the majority of parents who teach at home.

Hegener and other critics say they are most upset about the practice of state umbrella groups affiliated with the HSLDA taking control of "inclusive" home-schooling support groups (those without written or unwritten conditions for membership), which provide much of the important how-to and social opportunities home-schoolers need. Even some staunch Christian home-schoolers have defected from HSLDA, reporting that members of the group have gained leadership of nonpartisan support groups and then marginalized members unwilling to sign fundamentalist "statements of faith."

"This move to exclusivity has caused so much heartache among Christians," says Treon Gossen, a devout Christian who, after being forced from an exclusive group, started the inclusive Colorado home-school support group Concerned Parents of Colorado. "I think the biggest home-schooling trend you'll be seeing is more Christians saying, 'Enough is enough.'"

Frustrated home-schoolers have in the past several months decided to fight fire with fire, launching a new national inclusive group called the National Home Education Network, which will focus only on home-schooling issues and resources. And in Texas, which boasts the highest number of home-schooled kids at 150,000, a state home-school lobbying organization will debut in November, representing home-schoolers disenchanted with the HSLDA Texas affiliate, which is headed by Republican National Committeeman Tim Lambert.

While the fight over the heart and soul of home schooling has been a fascinating and sometimes frightening saga for observing home-school insiders, it is, in fact, a development that could affect all parents of school-age children. (Full disclosure: I've home-schooled two daughters for two years, and I belong to the inclusive Austin, Texas, home-schoolers support group.) The success that conservative fundamentalists have had in setting the agenda for all home-schoolers is one they're also working to establish in public schools.

At the time he founded the HSLDA, Farris served as staff lawyer for Concerned Women for America and on the steering committee of Coalition on Revival, a group dominated by reconstructionists, who call for "reconstructing" all areas of public life to reflect a fundamentalist ideal of Christian theocracy, complete with a biblical justice system. (Stoning adulterers would be just one legal penalty for hardcore reconstructionists, though not all believe in literal biblical law.) For the coalition, Farris coauthored with Virginia Armstrong a blueprint for how "America can be turned around and once again function as a Christian nation as it did in earlier years."

These days, Farris is focusing mainly on his role as chairman of the Madison Project, which gave away more than $1 million last year to conservative legislators. He continues to be instrumental in Virginia Republican politics and served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention. He's on the board of Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation as well as other political and religious organizations. This fall, as chairman of the HSLDA, he took on the presidency of Patrick Henry College, which markets itself mainly to Christian home-schoolers and opened this fall with 78 students.

Farris remains committed to lobbying for his theocratic agenda in political and home-school circles through peripatetic involvement in conservative organizations and numerous writings. Last September, Farris gathered together leaders of conservative organizations to interview Republican candidates for president, to ascertain their openness to supporting socially conservative issues. Farris, who invited Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, Phyllis Schlafly of Concerned Women for America and Randy Tate of the Christian Coalition to the meetings, described candidate Bush as "reasonably harmonious" with his and the other attendees' goals and deserving of their endorsement.

The leader of the HSLDA has since been very open about his hope to deliver the home-school vote to Bush. On the organization's Web site,, Farris lauds Bush as the obvious home-schooler's choice, and speculates that if Bush is elected, he may get an appointment in either the education or legal areas.

(Farris also pens mystery novels, such as the anti-abortion whodunit "Guilt by Association," and writes editorials and articles for the conservative Washington Times and other publications. He produces the syndicated "Faithful Father Devotional Series," teaches an online constitutional law class and is the father of 10 home-schooled children.)

The HSLDA founder defends his myriad political activities, saying, "Sure, I do a lot of things personally, such as pro-life work. But with HSLDA, we focus on home schooling, parents' rights and religious freedom issues." Adds Farris, "We stand up for them because they form the pillars of home-schooling freedom."

Not even Farris' critics quibble over his right to pursue whatever citizen advocacy he chooses -- home-schoolers unquestionably comprise every political stripe imaginable and many are outspoken, particularly about their educational philosophies. But the HSLDA, charge Hegener and others in Home Education Magazine, has gone too far. The organization has dominated debate about home-school regulation and legislation by refusing to work with other home-schooling groups, says a recent magazine report.

The magazine also says that the HSLDA is unfairly representing itself to national and local policymakers as the sole representative of home schooling. It has even pushed through legislation that has proved detrimental to home-schoolers, the magazine says. One example: An HSLDA-led legislative effort in New York that was supposed to loosen onerous regulations for home-schoolers led to requirements that parents report periodically to education officials and submit to standardized testing, measures almost uniformly opposed by most home-schoolers. (HSLDA lead attorney Chris Klicka has said that the legislation was "the best compromise we could get." Critics argue that a coalition of inclusive groups would have gotten a measure more favorable to home-schoolers.)

Most important, says Cheryl Seelhoff, the move toward exclusive support groups with HSLDA affiliation has thwarted access to home-school information and alienates many home-schoolers. Seelhoff, founder and publisher of folksy Christian home-schooling magazine Gentle Spirit, has emerged as a leading voice among devout Christian home-schoolers disgruntled with HSLDA.

According to Seelhoff, cooperation was very common in the early days of modern home schooling. Countercultural home-schoolers of the 1960s, influenced largely by John Holt's "unschooling" ideas (a child-led educational philosophy that emphasizes real-life experiences as learning), networked amicably with religiously motivated Christian home-schoolers, who began emerging in the 1970s.

In the late 1970s, however, conservative, fundamentalist Christian home-school leaders gained the upper hand, Seelhoff notes. Home-schooling support groups splintered when fundamentalists took over leadership and required members to sign "statements of faith." Members of these groups also were required or encouraged to follow rigid home-schooling guidelines stressing absolute parental authority, a Christian curriculum and a strict teaching style.

Leslie Moyers, a home-schooling mom of three children in Tulsa, Okla., recalls such an experience when she started teaching her kids at home (not for religious reasons). An HSLDA staff attorney gave a talk to an umbrella group of home-school support groups, she recalls, "and he used scare tactics about how if the groups stayed inclusive, that could allow homosexuals in. He was able to convince people in most of the groups that membership should be restricted." Subsequently, group officers, and in some cases, all group members, were required to sign statements of faith and submit details about how they home-schooled.

"They even asked group leaders to do home visits to make sure people were doing home schooling the 'right' way," Moyers says. Many who opted out of the groups launched the inclusive HERO support group network.

In other places where inclusive members refuted demands for exclusivity, fundamentalists often started rival "exclusive" groups, a move that splintered home-school unity in many states. Many exclusive groups responded to the call for "biblical separation," which allowed no interactions -- not even children's play groups -- with other home-schoolers. Needless to say, the free exchange of information among different groups and at home-school conferences was greatly restricted. Members of inclusive groups were often branded as "secular humanists" and excluded from gatherings and resource listings.

For newcomers, and home-schoolers in more isolated areas, the exclusivist influence continues to be particularly problematic. "Just starting out in home schooling is really scary," notes Laura Derrick, home-schooling mom of two and spokeswoman for the National Home Education Network. "Newcomers really need support and advice."

Newbies sometimes end up in exclusive groups, because if they contact HSLDA or other exclusive local groups, that's the only contact they'll get. But if they can't abide by the rules, they can risk private or public "confrontations" designed for those who question rules dictating home-school activity, right down to a field trip dress code. "I've had home-schoolers calling me in tears, wondering whether all home-school groups are like this," reports Derrick.

Holly Furgason was one of those newbies, a Mormon member who joined a conservative Christian support group "because it was the only one around" when she began home schooling in New Hampshire. She was initially puzzled when her children were followed by an adult whenever they left the room to play with other children. "Then I realized that the others in the group didn't consider me the 'right' kind of Christian, so they needed to supervise their children when the children were with mine to make sure that nothing 'bad' was said to the kids," she recalls. Furgason now heads an unschooling support group in Houston.

Separatist strategies, as bizarre as they may seem to people like Furgason, make sense to those who sincerely believe they must keep their children from influences they consider evil. "The most significant motivation [for exclusive home-schooling] is what I am protecting them from -- companionship with fools!" writes Jonathon Lindvall in Home School Digest. "Some might call this harsh and reactionary, but I am convinced God has called me to take seriously my role as protector of my family. Not only do I need a good offense to win, but a good defense is also imperative."

And there are plenty of supporters among home-schoolers who benefited from the legal representation of the HSLDA. Maria Elena Kennedy, a Catholic home-schooling mom of three children in suburban Los Angeles, called on HSLDA five years ago, when an anonymous tip that her children were "abandoned" in the backyard brought child protective service workers and police officers to her house. HSLDA lawyers won a $70,000 settlement and a ruling that police officers had violated the Kennedys' civil rights by not obtaining a search warrant before entering the house.

"This can happen to anyone," says Kennedy. "Our membership was well worth it. HSLDA spent thousands of dollars defending us."

Still, many home-schoolers point out that home schooling has been legal in the United States for more than 10 years, making legal challenges like the Kennedys' fairly rare. And critics such as Shay Seabourne, a Virginia home-schooling mom who is active in her state support group, note that most home-schooling litigation involves disputes that go to family court, cases that feature ex-spouses disagreeing about expenses or custody as well as teaching at home.

The HSLDA notes in its membership agreement that it will not take cases involving "divorce, child custody or related domestic affairs." One longtime HSLDA member and divorcing Colorado mom discovered this the hard way after her initial request for help resulted in a response from HSLDA lawyers that they would pray for her and send an information pack to her lawyer. HSLDA finally responded, Seabourne reports, after other home-schoolers protested.

In the face of the mounting criticism over the years, HSLDA has reacted with charges of discrimination. Farris sent a response to the initial Home Education Magazine report calling critics "anti-Christian secular bigots." In fact, many of the critics cited in the report are Christian, and HEM regularly runs articles and columns by Christian home-schoolers. The initial reaction of HSLDA senior counsel Klicka to my questions about criticism aimed at the group was this: "We are a Christian organization and we are real clear about that."

When told that critics of the HSLDA differentiated between the many thousands of home-schoolers who happen to be Christian and those who advocate politically motivated, exclusivist home-schooling tactics, Klicka maintained that the criticisms are simply unfounded. If HSLDA has the strongest voice on issues of home schooling with the public and legislators, that is the result, he maintains, of hard work on the part of its leaders and members. Klicka says that "in the real world," home-schoolers with differing opinions can't always work in coalition; and that the HSLDA unapologetically forges ahead to "do the very best we can for the good of all home-schoolers."

Referring to cases in which HSLDA secured legislation others deem bad for home-schoolers, Klicka says, "Sometimes when the legislative climate is bad you've got to accept things that are less than perfect." And as for HSLDA's pursuit of issues unrelated to home schooling, well, they are all related, Klicka says. "If these battles are lost, they will also damage our home-schooling freedoms."

HSLDA's sustained lobbying against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child -- the top issue cited in an "issues alert" sent by the HSLDA to all members of Congress last fall -- is necessary because "if children have rights, they could refuse to be home-schooled, plus it takes away parents' rights to physically discipline their children," says Klicka. He had a similar explanation for the group's opposition to increased federal child abuse laws -- more laws would mean more likelihood that corporal punishment could be defined as child abuse. (Just this month, administrators from Patrick Henry College were among those testifying before the Virginia Department of Social Services for a measure that would allow foster parents to physically discipline foster children.)

As for the notion that HSLDA tries to define proper Christians as only those who are fundamentalist and politically conservative, Klicka insists, "Unity among Christians has never been stronger." And Klicka's take on the assertions of Seelhoff, the publisher of Gentle Spirit? "Oh, that adulterer," muttered Klicka. "I haven't read her stuff, so I can't respond to it."

The "adulterer," however, is well-known to HSLDA insiders because she was once a great asset to the four pillars. As the circulation of Seelhoff's magazine, Gentle Spirit, skyrocketed, Welch, publisher of the Teaching Home, asked to list Seelhoff's popular home-schooling workshops in her magazine and Gregg Harris invited her to speak at home-school conferences.

But when she left her husband (who she said was abusive), violating a fundamental Christian taboo on divorce, many of the conservative Christian home-schooling leaders who had previously praised her turned on her, unleashing a battery of harassment that some have described as distinctly un-Christian.

Seelhoff filed a successful lawsuit against Welch, Harris and Mary Pride, who publishes another prominent conservative Christian home-school magazine, Practical Home-schooling. She was awarded $1.3 million in September 1998. Documents filed in the suit describe the following scenario:

Alleging that Seelhoff had committed adultery with her now-husband Rick Seelhoff, Welch informed 41 state home-school organizations of Seelhoff's alleged "adultery and lying," hoping to persuade groups to drop Seelhoff's forthcoming speaking engagements. (They did.)

Pride and other conservative home-schoolers, shocked at the news of Seelhoff's divorce, posted personal attacks on Seelhoff on several Web sites, and Pride directed an employee to spread the word among Gentle Spirit's advertisers and encourage them to drop their Gentle Spirit ads. (They did.)

The widely circulated reports of Seelhoff's "adulterous behavior" caused many Gentle Spirit subscribers to cancel. Finally, with Farris offering legal advice at various points, Welch, Harris and Seelhoff's former pastor tried to force her to sign a "proof of repentance" that would have her reconcile with her estranged husband; hand over her magazine and bank accounts; cease public speaking; give up her phone, post office box and online service; and never leave the house alone. Bereft of income and unable to give subscribers their money back, Seelhoff sued under antitrust laws.

HSLDA's response to members inquiring about the Seelhoff suit was simple: "We would simply refer people to 1 Cor. 6:1-10," wrote Farris. Good Christians, he added, are biblically prohibited from suing other Christians. Indeed, 1 Corinthians 6:1-10 begins with the question "When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?" and ends with "Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers -- none of these will inherit the kingdom of God."

John Holzmann is another stalwart Christian who felt the righteous rage of HSLDA when he asked its leaders to respond to issues raised by Seelhoff, the HEM report and many customers of the Christian curriculum publishing firm he co-founded, Sonlight.

Sonlight materials had enjoyed great popularity in HSLDA circles and Holzmann offered HSLDA membership discounts to customers. But when Holzmann spoke up, HSLDA struck back. At a meeting with the group's representatives, Holzmann says he got the bottom line: Don't ever speak out against HSLDA publicly or you will face HSLDA charges of "gossip, slander and failure to observe the requirements of Matthew 18:15-17." ("If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.")

In January, Holzmann announced that Sonlight would dissociate from HSLDA, and he left his exclusive home-school group for an inclusive group.

HSLDA does have a reputation for silencing the opposition, relying on a well-organized membership network to make its demands known. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., found that out when introducing a measure in 1994 that would require that teachers be certified in the subjects they teach. Home-school groups were satisfied that the measure would not apply to home-schoolers and advised HSLDA not to pursue it, but HSLDA leaders sent out instructions to oppose the bill on the grounds that it might be interpreted to mean that home-schooling parents need to be certified as well.

The call to action brought a barrage of phone calls and faxes that shut down Capitol Hill phone lines for days. The vote was 435-1 against the certification proposal. Not one representative other than Miller wanted to risk the wrath of HSLDA, illustrating an intimidation factor that critics say further allows HSLDA to dominate on the issue of home schooling in state and national forums.

HSLDA is open about its wish to stay in control of the debate on home-schooling issues. The group asks its members, including older children, to learn how to lobby. The group sponsors regular conferences for members that teach tactics and include legislator visits. In 1990, HSLDA created the National Center for Home Education, with its "two-punch" program that trains legislative directors for each state and volunteers for each district to respond to HSLDA alerts about proposed legislation or regulation with faxes, phone calls, e-mails and visits.

And this fall, HSLDA launched Patrick Henry College with the primary goal of training conservative, fundamental leaders who will work for legislators and think tanks to enact change. The college's mission, according to spokesman Rich Jefferson, is to "promote practical application of biblical principles while preparing students for lives of public service, advocacy and leadership." Government is the only subject in which Patrick Henry students can major thus far, and government-related internships are mandatory. Farris promises that grads will work to ensure "the proper, God-given roles in society of church, state and family."

With its own college, lobbying group and research center, the HSLDA is a juggernaut that other home-schoolers will have a hard time matching. "No one has the energy to compete on their scale," notes Laura Derrick, spokeswoman for the National Home Education Network, who helped set up NHEN in part to provide information alternatives to HSLDA. "We home-school because we want to help our kids learn, not pursue an ideological agenda."

Nonetheless, home-schoolers have done much in recent years to expand options for those who are not enamored of HSLDA home-schooling goals. In the past several years, inclusive organizations have blossomed, and national and local networks of inclusive groups have flourished, using the Internet to post a wealth of home-school resources and contacts, including those offered by exclusive groups.

And home-school pioneers are quick to note that home-schoolers have been scrappy and resourceful in their own defense from the start, solving problems that threaten their right to teach at home by working locally in coalitions. "A lot of problems you can simply solve with a letter or phone call or visit to a legislator," says Hegener, the Home Education Magazine founder, who with his wife, Helen, has home-schooled six children since the 1970s. "And legislators tell me that they listen a lot more to local home-schoolers whom they've known over the years than some lawyers coming in from out of town."

Advocates like Derrick hope the increased visibility of inclusive groups will allow the media and public a chance to consider home schooling in all its diversity. That diversity, she notes, isn't yet reflected in much media coverage, which tends to be based on HSLDA statistics, such as its research institute's finding that 85 to 90 percent of home-schoolers made the choice to teach at home "based on religious convictions." The NHERI's survey sample? Some 1,600 HSLDA members.

The press also covered extensively a report released last year by a University of Maryland education professor and funded by HSLDA. It concluded that the vast majority of home-schoolers are white, fairly wealthy and motivated by Christian beliefs. The survey respondents, recruited with assistance from HSLDA, were all home-schoolers who bought testing services and curriculum from the conservative Bob Jones University.

Reporters may not know that HSLDA and other exclusive state organizations rarely refer journalists (and of course, any interested home-schoolers) to inclusive groups. Perhaps that's why most home-school features focus on conservative Christian families. As recently as last month, a reporter for a national newspaper was able to get a contact for an inclusive group only by repeatedly pressing the point and demanding to speak to another person at HSLDA.

This may be the HSLDA's most powerful advantage -- a strong foothold in the press. As long as a stereotype about home schooling persists in the public eye, many frustrated parents will shy away from an education option that has paid off for thousands of children. "People, especially those contemplating home schooling, need to know that home-schoolers come from all different walks of life, home-school for a million different reasons and have a lot of fun and success doing it," says Derrick. "We all suffer when we don't know about all the options."

By Helen Cordes

Helen Cordes home schools two daughters in Georgetown, Texas, and writes for Utne Reader, Child, The Nation, Family Life and other magazines. She is author of "Girl Power in the Mirror" and "Girl Power in the Classroom."

MORE FROM Helen Cordes

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George W. Bush Home Schooling