It wasn’t that long ago when a kid not enrolled in a traditional school was considered truant. These days, things have changed. Homeschooling is now mainstream, but it’s still not without its controversies. However, a Virginia based group has proven remarkably effective at blocking what they see as intrusions into homeschooling families and their autonomy.
In the fall of 2003, police in New Jersey received a call from a concerned neighbor who’d found a boy rummaging in her garbage, looking for food. He was 19 years old but was 4 feet tall and weighed just 45 pounds. Investigators soon learned that the boy’s three younger brothers were also severely malnourished.
The family was known to social workers, but the children were being homeschooled and thus were cut off from the one place where their condition could have gotten daily scrutiny — a classroom.
After the story of the emaciated boys appeared in national newspapers, New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg was moved to introduce new legislation. “My question was, how does someone fall off the face of the earth so that no one knows they exist? I was told it was because he was homeschooled,” she said.
Her bill, introduced in 2004, would’ve required parents, for the first time, to notify the state that their children were being homeschooled, have them complete the same annual tests as public school students, and submit proof of annual medical tests.
Soon afterward, a small group of homeschooling parents began following Weinberg around the capitol. The barrage of phone calls from homeschooling advocates so jammed her office phone lines that staffers had to use their private cellphones to conduct business. “You would have thought I’d recommended the end of the world as we know it,” said Weinberg. “Our office was besieged.”
Many of the “hundreds and hundreds” of calls she said her office received came in response to an email alert from the Home School Legal Defense Association, a small but fierce advocacy group based in Purcellville, Virginia. The email, sent May 3, 2004, urged members to immediately place calls opposing a bill that would “devastate homeschooling in New Jersey” by giving the state Board of Education “virtually unlimited power to impose additional restrictions” — a claim Weinberg said was untrue. Additional alerts with similar language were sent out on May 13, 14, 18, 21, 26 and 28.
“There are very few fights I have given up in the more than 20-some-odd years I have been involved in the state Legislature, but this was one of them,” Weinberg said. While Weinberg dropped the bill that year, she has picked it up several times since — as recently as 2014 — even removing the testing requirement in favor of reviews of student work in an attempt to compromise with the HSLDA. Each attempt has failed.
To lawmakers who have made similar efforts across the country, this comes as no surprise. Since homeschooling first became legal about 25 years ago, HSLDA’s lobbying efforts have doomed proposed regulations and rolled back existing laws in state after state. The group was founded in 1983 by lawyer and ordained Baptist minister Michael Farris, who also founded Patrick Henry College. Although its members represent only about 15 percent of the nation’s estimated 1.5 million homeschooled children — up from 850,000 in 1999 — its tactics have made it highly influential.
“To my knowledge, I can’t think of an occasion where we went backwards [in our goal],” said Farris, who said the HSLDA has been involved in “virtually all” legislative efforts involving homeschooling in the past two decades.
“Somebody who wants to file a bill, they should expect to hear from every homeschooler in their state. We will do everything we can do to make sure every homeschooler knows what is going on,” said Farris.
Judy Day, a former Democratic assemblywoman in New Hampshire, experienced this firsthand when she attempted to pass a bill that would have required annual tests and evaluations of student work, called portfolio reviews, in 2009. In November 2008, before the text of the bill was even released, the HSLDA sent an email alert to its members, listing Day’s phone number and personal email address. A subsequent alert sent in January 2009 called the bill the “most serious legislative threat ever faced by New Hampshire homeschoolers.”
Day said she often talked with homeschooling parents for upward of an hour, explaining that the only intent of the bill was to catch the children who were receiving a poor education. “The general response was that they weren’t that interested in the other kids — they were interested in their own children and that’s where it stopped,” she said. These discussions, she said, further convinced her that regulation was necessary. The bill went to a vote but overwhelmingly failed. Day believes other legislators didn’t want to deal with the blowback she’d received.
That same year, David Cook, a former representative from Arkansas, attempted to pass a bill that would have required homeschooling parents to seek approval from the local district to homeschool. “I was a superintendent for 18 years, and in that time I saw a lot of folks that said they were homeschooling and they really weren’t,” he said. But all of Cook’s cosponsors removed their names from the bill after HSLDA-prompted calls flooded in. “They thought it was good legislation until the heat got to them,” he said, noting that a similar bill he’d written in 2005 had died in committee. After meeting with several homeschooling groups to attempt to compromise on the 2009 bill, Cook came up empty. “They told me the only legislation they wanted was what Alaska had, which was nothing,” he said.
Parents choose homeschooling for many reasons. Government calls for testing and examination of the school work may be made purely to insure that the student is being properly educated. However, the perception by many homeschool parents is that they will place an undue burden on these families as well as give the government more control over what is being taught.
For parents who find public school unacceptable — and based on test scores in many locations, it’s hard to blame them — homeschooling offers a cheaper alternative to private school. The question then becomes, should the government have any say over what a parent teaches their child in a homeschool setting?