Homeschooling Freedoms At Risk - Mark and Helen Hegener

The breaking down of the homeschool community is heralding more restrictive laws and regulations for all homeschoolers.

Long established support and political networks have been damaged, and in many cases replaced with new exclusive groups. Legal actions have been taken which have resulted in the strengthening of states’ rights over the education of our children. A view of homeschooling has been actively promoted which advances the notion that there is only one way to homeschool, and which ties that one way to an extremely narrow range of social and political support. A sense of community has been lost and our homeschooling freedoms are being threatened.

With this special section we hope to demonstrate how this loss of community affects us all, and to show how some homeschoolers have begun to respond to the alarming events we are seeing.

For the past three years hundreds of letters, conversations, phone calls, and other communications have been telling the same stories, asking the same questions, communicating feelings of confusion and bewilderment, and alerting us to an increasingly serious problem within the homeschool community. We have repeatedly attempted to address the underlying issues, and to alert people to problematic actions and directions. Now it has become obvious to us that people need to hear, clearly and unambiguously, what we and many others perceive as a serious threat to the homeschooling community.

That threat is the undermining of individual responsibility, with an increasing push toward a reliance on experts and professionals, and an ever-tightening monopoly on the tools and resources that homeschooling families need.

Centralizing Power and Control

The problem is a small group of individuals, their organizations, and their associates, whose actions have resulted in dividing the homeschool community, breaking down networks of support and communication, and artificially imposing an exclusive hierarchical order.

Actions initiated by these individuals and their organizations have increasingly resulted in the control of homeschooling being placed into the hands of a very few. Our ability to speak for and to represent ourselves is threatened. Our individual and collective political strength is greatly weakened. Our homeschooling freedoms are at risk.

We are talking about the actions taken by Michael Farris, Gregg Harris, Sue Welch, and Brian Ray, the group which has come to be referred to as the "four pillars of homeschooling." Whatever their individual or collective titles, their actions are inflicting hurt, anguish, pain, and sorrow on thousands of homeschooling families, and yet we have been lead to believe that their leadership is above question or comment, not subject to criticism, and beyond reproach.

Individuals who have become increasingly associated with these activities include Chris Klicka, J. Richard Fugate, Mary Pride, Sharon Grimes, and several others. In addition, there are dozens of local and state leaders who directly and indirectly provide support for the centralization of power and control.

Exclusive Hierarchies

For many years homeschooling families have worked to build local, state and national networks that have assisted homeschoolers in maintaining their educational freedoms. The homeschool support group became an effective and powerful tool in building these networks.

At the same time, this idea of support groups for homeschooling families has provided a convenient model for those who would misuse the potential. In his book, The Christian Home School (Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1988), Gregg Harris writes that he has used his Home Schooling Workshop to "successfully kick off the establishment of state Christian Home Education Associations and metropolitan support groups. Once established, these groups serve as our annual workshop hosts." Along with Sue Welch and her Teaching Home magazine, Harris has actively promoted a climate of exclusivism among homeschoolers, has supported the splitting of long-established coalitions, and has encouraged and assisted in the formation of new exclusivist homeschooling groups.

Many new exclusive groups are being encouraged to "hide" their exclusivity, with the goal of appearing to have a much broader base of support. Many members of such groups are not even aware that their group is exclusive, or that they must sign a statement of faith to hold office within the group. Most of these groups promote themselves to education officials, legislators, the media, and others outside of the homeschool community as open to all homeschoolers, when in fact their leadership adheres to a very narrow educational or ideological point of view. Groups are exhorted not to work with, sometimes not even to talk to, those homeschooling groups which are not "approved."

Sue Welch, using her position as editor of The Teaching Home, has repeatedly worked to entice state groups to co-publish as an insert in this national magazine. This co-publishing arrangement weakens the existing networks in favor of an imposed exclusive hierarchy. The Teaching Home then uses these groups to lend an air of credibility to its position atop this exclusive hierarchy.

This relationship has very far reaching implications. Given the editorial and advertising policies of The Teaching Home magazine, the true diversity of the homeschool community can never be recognized via the co-published inserts. Control of this vital link in the communication process is straining local and state relationships and further lessening the ability of these groups to work cohesively. This also, in turn, increases the dependency on outside "expert help" in the face of adversity.

In states where there was no group whose leaders chose to sign a statement of faith necessary for co-publication, Sue and others have designated support groups, sometimes small and very localized support groups, to be the new state Christian organization. Or they have simply implanted new organizations altogether, often by orchestrating the takeover of an existing open support group.

In the September/October 1990 issue of Florida’s FPEA Almanac, a letter to the editor asked, "Just when things are beginning to get really organized and are running well for the F.P.E.A., why is someone stirring things up by talking about a Christian organization? They tried this about six years ago, and it fell flat on its face. I am, of course, referring to the article in Florida at Home in The Teaching Home, where it stated that ‘they’ (whoever they are) are ‘calling Christians to action.’ I would like to go on record stating that the Christians are already in action… in F.P.E.A.! I’d also like to know where Sue Welch gets off suggesting that the ‘Christians in Florida need to come forth and organize.’ The Teaching Home is supposed to be a magazine that ministers to the needs of Christian homeschoolers (and to many others who subscribe and are not Christian), NOT to be an instigator of ‘exclusively Christian groups,’ especially in a state where it is not needed."

Alabama’s The Voice newsletter, Summer, 1990, reported, "It has been proposed that a doctrinal statement be signed by all AHE Directors and Officers. The irony of the situation is that the very people in Alabama wanting to require a signed statement of faith from all present and future AHE leaders received free ‘non-sectarian’ brochures and pamphlets upon request to help them begin homeschooling!"

In a letter to our September/October, 1989 issue Joyce Spurgin wrote, "Oklahoma Central Home Educators Consociation sent us and other ‘leaders’ a leadership agreement that we are required to sign in order to be ‘leaders.’ Perhaps we are the only homeschooling family in the state who refuses to sign statements of faith. However, I can’t keep from thinking that there must be others out there like us, or why would there be such a big effort to make sure we are excluded."

The proponents of exclusivism are wreaking havoc in state after state by breaking down lines of communication, circumventing effective network building, weakening existing networks, imposing artificial organizational structures, co-opting individual responsibility and fostering a dependency on outside groups and individuals. There’s a definite pattern, a self-perpetuating cycle that supports exclusive groups, locking many homeschoolers out of new networks and driving others from existing networks.

The formation of this exclusive hierarchy brings the complex underlying issues of religious intolerance and domination into the homeschool community. Our founding fathers grappled with this issue, and the world faces this same problem today in country after country. There can be no freedom of any sort when one group dominates another.

The rationale that urges an exclusive hierarchy is the rationale for religious domination, which serves to encourage a climate of religious intolerance within the hierarchy itself. It is often advantageous to skirt the issue of religious domination, those who draw their political power from exclusive hierarchies demonstrate that there can be very tangible rewards in fanning the flames of religious intolerance. Neither domination nor intolerance will lead in any way to a greater degree of freedom for any of us. The freedom of each and every homeschooling family depends on the homeschooling community’s ability to come to grips with this issue.

Shaping Society’s Perceptions

The imposition of exclusive hierarchies makes it much harder for the rest of the homeschooling community to be heard on matters that directly affect their families and thereby they are often rendered politically silent. This paves the way for those in leadership positions within the exclusive hierarchies to represent only their particular brand of homeschooling to legislators, the national media, education officials, and others who are interested in homeschooling.

In the process of destroying networks and centralizing control, only the "right kind of Christian" can be elevated to a position of leadership. Yet by claiming to represent all homeschoolers, these selected leaders are fostering society’s view that the majority of homeschooling families are "religious fanatics." This results in a narrowing of political support for homeschooling, so that instead of becoming broader and stronger, the movement as a whole is contracting and weakening. The controversy that surrounded Senate Bill 695 last year provided a good example of this kind of political damage. In an article addressing that subject we wrote, "Because this was not considered a homeschooling issue by Congressional staffers, homeschoolers have now been labelled as an uninformed, inarticulate group which merely reacts to phone tree calls to legislative action. It will take careful rebuilding to undo the harm that has been done to the homeschool movement." And yet Michael Farris used the entire event as a grandstanding opportunity to launch his latest project, boldly announcing, "This episode with S. 695 serves as absolute confirmation of the immediate need for the National Center for Home Education (NCHE). We are glad that our plans were well underway so that we have a plan for the future that can be implemented right away."

It is a sad irony that it can be much more difficult today to find an accurate portrayal of homeschooling than it was ten years ago. In 1981 it may have taken some serious digging to find information on the option, but the information was there, and it had broad appeal to those who were ready for it. In 1991 one certainly doesn’t have to look very far to find newsletters, conferences, books, and much more on the subject of homeschooling, but those sources are more than likely to be so one-sided and misleading as to be utterly discouraging.

This pool of one-sided information on homeschooling is gaining new legitimacy. Brian Ray, as the research arm of the four pillars, has repeatedly allowed the use of his research results to support the goals of isolationism, portraying and advancing an extremely narrow definition of homeschooling. The Christmas, 1990 edition of The Home School Court Report featured initial results from a nationwide survey commissioned by NCHE and directed by Brian Ray. The survey’s target population for the study was home education families who are members of HSLDA. 1,516 families responded to the survey, which was touted by Michael Farris as "the most extensive of its kind in terms of national scope, the subjects covered, and the number of homeschooling families participating." Michael goes on to say, "The public policy implications of these numbers are obvious."

Can he be serious in suggesting that there are public policy implications in a survey purchased by NCHE and targeting only members of HSLDA? Given the small percentage of the total homeschool population that HSLDA represents, shouldn’t the narrow scope of such a survey be obvious to anyone? Apparently not. The population for this survey was limited to a very narrow segment of the homeschool community: those few homeschoolers who currently support the idea that the best legal protection is a central agency, and who fit HSLDA’s membership criteria. And yet, in an article for Education Week, February 13, 1991, reporter Mark Walsh wrote favorably of this "new national study" of homeschooled students, conducted by The National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI). In an article for the March, 1991 issue of US Air, writer Greg Monfils also relies on statistics from this research. The perceptions fostered by this "national" research project, done under the auspices of a "national" research institute, and funded by a "national" center, are misleading. The narrow scope of this research project, coupled with the overriding legitimacy its use is giving it, is a betrayal of the entire homeschooling community.

Our Wanna-be Spokesman

Michael Farris has repeatedly tried to position himself as the preeminent spokesperson for the homeschool community. In an article announcing the establishment of the National Center for Home Education in The Teaching Home, April/May, 1990, Farris wrote, "The National Center will seek to provide an active presence in Washington, D. C., representing homeschooling interests." In the same article Farris talked about promoting "aggressive media relations and placement of public service announcements as required for national issues," and stated that "HSLDA is already involved in many of these activities. We are strategically located in the Washington, D. C., metropolitan area and have already established many contacts to assist us in the function of a ‘watch dog’ for homeschooling in our nation’s capital, but we see a need to expand these services."

In a letter to California Congressman William E. Dannemeyer, dated October 26, 1990, Farris wrote, "Home School Legal Defense Association officially represents 18,500 families from all fifty states who are homeschooling their children; this figure represents approximately 50,000 children. Nearly 5,000 of our members live in California. Through our subsidiary, The National Center for Home Education, we also work cooperatively with state homeschooling organizations in every state who represent the bulk of all homeschooling families." (Although sometimes referred to as a subsidiary or division, Michael Farris has told us that there is no difference between the two organizations, NCHE is a dba - doing business as - of HSLDA.)

This type of brazen misrepresentation has prompted homeschoolers in state after state to protest the actions of HSLDA/NCHE. In our Nov/Dec, 1990 issue a homeschooling mother wrote, "I joined HSLDA for legal protection only. I did not ask to join NCHE. I do not want to be part of a discriminatory organization and I do not want them to claim they represent my views." And in our May/June, 1990 issue we published an Open Letter to The National Center for Home Education from two homeschooling leaders in Pennsylvania, Diana Baseman and Claire Whitmire, in which they questioned "the presumed representation of all homeschoolers." They told HSLDA and NCHE that "Because you have failed to distinguish or define your constituency, you have wrongly presumed the interest and support of us all and denied individuals the freedom not to be a part of your organization."

The most blatant slap in the face of our freedoms appeared in an article that was first published in HSLDA’s Home School Court Report and later reprinted in The Teaching Home. Farris wrote,"Who gets to speak for the homeschooling movement? The majority speaks for the movement. Why should it rattle anyone’s cage for the majority of homeschoolers to define the position of the movement? I would hope that non-Christian homeschoolers would endorse the rights of Christian homeschoolers — including the right to vote our convictions and the right to majority rule."

This seemingly clever argument conceals a couple of important points. It would be extremely presumptuous of anyone to represent all the convictions of every Christian. And it would be even more foolish to argue for majority rule. Given the attitude toward homeschooling in America today, the right to majority rule would result in all of our children being put back into public schools. To maintain our freedoms, each and every one of us has to be able to define our own positions, assume our own responsibilities, and make our own decisions based on our personal beliefs. We can accept no less.

HSLDA: Legal and Legislative Experts?

Since 1983, Home School Legal Defense Association has worked hard to position itself atop the exclusive hierarchy as the preeminent legal and legislative organization for all homeschoolers. Their impact on our freedoms has become one of our primary concerns.

As presumed legal and legislative experts, they impose themselves on state networks and assume the individuals’ responsibility. When this happens, people on the state and local level are no longer building long-term relationships they can use, they are building relationships for HSLDA. When out-of-state attorneys fly in and start pulling tricks out of their hats they effectively circumvent the kind of networking and coalition building that can best serve the real needs of homeschooling families.

In addition, when HSLDA acts as the outside expert, they give themselves the highest level of visibility and assume primary decision-making roles. Too often, state homeschool leaders have been razzle-dazzled by HSLDA’s legalistic maneuverings, which makes homeschoolers more likely to turn to HSLDA for help with problems in the future, rather than trying to work things out on their own. This dependency inevitably leads to compromising the interests of those who either don’t see a need for HSLDA protection, don’t meet the membership requirements, or who would just rather assume their own responsibilities.

Further, HSLDA’s trend towards over-reliance on constitutional attacks to defend homeschooling has not been successful. In a 62-page report issued by the Wisconsin Legislative Council Staff, dated November 21, 1990 and based on reported case law (cases appealed at the state level) throughout the U. S., the evidence showed that since 1980 the constitutionality of state laws regulating home schools has not been upheld in the courts. According to an article in Phi Delta Kappan, January, 1991, "The only constitutional strategy that has sometimes yielded success in the courts for home-instruction advocates has been to allege that statutory provisions for home instruction are constitutionally vague." While some of these authors, or the institutiions that they work for, may or may not be entirely friendly toward homeschooling interests, they often have access to information that homeschoolers can examine and assess for themselves.

The legacy of these constitutional challenges has been volumes of unnecessary verbiage about how to home educate. After years of litigation homeschoolers are now living under laws and regulations that have increasingly emulated conventional schools: state mandated standardized testing, curriculum review, parental qualifications, and more. Interestingly enough, these are the kinds of services that NCHE is now moving to provide. In his letter announcing the National Center, dated February 13, 1990, Farris states, "The need for legal defense has never been a strong sales point for homeschooling. NCHE will be able to accentuate the positive side of homeschooling."

HSLDA/NCHE not only actively fosters a dependency on their services, which undermines individual action and responsibility, but they also promote a clear perception that there is an ‘approved homeschool method,’ defined in part by their membership application. This application requests information very similar to what we have come to expect from hostile school officials: test results, curriculum, academic background of the parent, notification of previous contact with officials. With its new NCHE services, HSLDA is, in effect, providing an administrative service for the school officials. When a family sends their $100 HSLDA membership they are actually supporting and strengthening this service, and the perception that there is "one approved method" of homeschooling, at the expense of all others.

For ease of legal defense, HSLDA carefully selects along the lines of conventional school criteria, rather than administering to the needs of individuals or breaking new ground for freedom. Pat Montgomery, in an article entitled, "Must I Buy Homeschool Insurance?" in The Learning Edge (March, 1991), brings up some interesting statistics regarding home schooling and legal defense. She states, "Of the thousands of families Clonlara has served, relatively few — twenty-eight to be exact — have ever had contact from local officials that could not be handled by a simple phone call or letter." Of those twenty-eight, eighteen Clonlara families were actually summoned to court between 1984 and 1990. Seventeen of them won, and sixteen of those did not hire a lawyer! Six families joined Clonlara between 1980 and 1990 while they were already involved in a court process, but only five of those were in court on home school issues. All five won their cases, and not one of them hired an attorney! As Pat sums up the issue, "The record shows that families who home educate, by and large, have little to fear from officials."

Attorney John Eidsmoe, speaking on the nationally televised Moore Teleconference on Homeschooling last April, stated, "Even in restricted states, the percentage of parents who actually get prosecuted is only a little higher than the percentage who get struck by lightning. They’re very selective about who they prosecute, and the vast majority of parents, even in these states, get left alone."

This is not to say that local school districts and superintendents don’t harass homeschoolers on a regular basis — they do. And special interest groups continually prompt the legislature to regulate homeschooling. But these kinds of contacts can be resolved without buying into the care and feeding of a national organization.

Using The Home School Court Report, from which information is reprinted widely, HSLDA has repeatedly portrayed situations in state after state to appear much more hostile than necessary. As just one example, in the Summer, 1990 issue of The Court Report a three-column heading announces "South Dakota Restricts Home Schooling With New Regulations," and the article goes on to paint a potentially grim picture of possible complications under the new regulations. However, the August, 1990 newsletter of the South Dakota Home School Association discussed the new regulations and reported that "Our relationship with the state department of education appears to be the best it has ever been," and goes on to explain that the president of SDHSA and other homeschooling leaders "met with the department earlier in the summer. We were received in a spirit of cooperation as they believe that most homeschoolers are doing a good job."

This misinformation also comes directly out of their home office. We frequently hear reports of entire support groups being told that they are in imminent danger, when in fact no such "danger" exists. A common approach is to tell homeschoolers at conferences and conventions that there have been more contacts in their state than at any other time, and that things are only getting worse in their state instead of better.

One of the most significant questions to consider is the actual competence of HSLDA’s attorneys. In a meeting with Michael Farris and several others in Spokane, Washington, held in June, 1990, we asked Michael about a phone call we had placed to HSLDA, inquiring about a supposed legal situation in our own state. Feeling that we had been given blatant misinformation by the attorney we talked with, we asked Michael about the incident. His reply was that this particular attorney was "not really a very good lawyer," and that they were not sure "whether or not he was going to work out." Yet this individual had been with HSLDA for a year at that time, is still an HSLDA attorney, and is still advising homeschooling families in several states.

In New York State, in 1988, in a U. S. District Court decision, Blackwelder v. Safnauer, the District Court Chief Judge issued a reprimand to Michael Farris that appears in the Federal Supplement (volume #689, page 106), "The progress of this case has been hindered by plaintiffs’ failure to adhere to the procedural framework of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and this court’s Local Rules. The court has been indulgent — perhaps too indulgent — in forgiving a multitude of procedural errors, because it has not wanted to punish the individual plaintiffs for the shoddy motion practice of their attorneys. There comes a point, however, when forbearance of one party’s carelessness unfairly prejudices their adversaries. That point has been reached in this case." The Judge’s comment then goes on to discuss the problems caused by Farris.

We need to keep in mind that what HSLDA does is lawyer stuff. That is to say, what they know how to do best is to function within the judicial system, an institution that has become increasingly insensitive to the individual and his needs. This rarefied air that they keep themselves in precludes individual action and initiative. Legalistic arguments and professional hat tricks will not gain us any greater degree of homeschooling freedom. We need to rely instead on the kind of good old fashioned wisdom and sound judgement that we can gain from our own experience.

Responsibility and Freedom

With their national visibility, HSLDA/NCHE, Christian Life Workshops, The Teaching Home, and NHERI sit atop a hierarchy that not only perpetuates itself but which purposefully advances a notion that there is primarily one "approved" method for homeschooling. This leads us, as a homeschooling community, back into the same trap of "one size fits all" education that is the very essence of the educational institution. This hierarchy that has grown up within our midst has also promised us the illusion of easy and convenient protection of our freedoms, yet their actions have had a tremendously negative impact on an already effectively functioning homeschool community, and they are largely responsible for the homeschool community’s current state of disarray.

What can we, as individual homeschoolers, do about this situation? We have already assumed a responsibility that is directly translated into freedom, we are homeschooling. The impact of this freedom says we, as individuals, are capable of exercising sound judgment in the face of the challenges that shape our lives. This responsibility stands in direct opposition to any individual or group that would come between us and our decision making processes.

One of the primary keys is to take steps to bring each homeschooling family into the homeschool community. Communication is the most important step. We need unrestricted communication at all levels of this community. We need communication that doesn’t have to be approved by a hierarchical order but that directly serves the needs of all homeschooling families. Newsletters, phone trees, support group meetings, conferences, and conversations between friends and neighbors can be our most effective tools in working to put our communication networks - and the homeschooling community - back together.

The issues raised here are not going to disappear overnight. As homeschoolers we will always face very subtle and complex challenges to our freedoms, and we must be prepared to face what comes. The best opportunity we have to defend our freedoms is to assume the responsibility of maintaining them ourselves, by staying informed and taking action, and not relying on experts and professionals, whatever their professed accomplishments, to assume the responsibility for us. We all need to follow through on the many diverse responsibilities we assumed when we chose homeschooling for our children.

© 1991, Home Education Magazine

This piece is part of the series Homeschooling Freedoms at Risk Originally published
in the May-June 1991 issue of Home Education Magazine (Top)

Freedoms At Risk - Twenty Years Later
Homeschooling Freedoms At Risk
Freedoms Responsibilities And The “Four Pillars”
Homeschooling Rights and Responsibilities
Bitter Pill-ars to Swallow
From Across the Nation

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Anti-Spam Protection by WP-SpamFree