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With so many schools closed across the country and so many parents working from home to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus, families are desperate for resources. In response, homeschool organizations like the conservative evangelical-affiliated Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) are ramping up their outreach, encouraging members to spread the good word about homeschooling.
In a recent email blast, HSLDA encouraged its members to help make “homeschooling possible and accessible to everyone—including those who are homeschool-curious! We invite you to share the great news that homeschooling works and encourage others to join us! And we are praying for God’s protection for you and your family, our nation, and the peoples of the world.” But at what cost? Long associated with fear-mongering, isolationism, and the deregulation of education, HSLDA is responding to the current pandemic by recruiting parents trapped by fear and circumstance.
Since homeschooling was formally legalized in the United States nearly 30 years ago, HSLDA’s advocacy has ensured that nearly no regulations remain between parents and the system they use to educate their children. ProPublica’s review of state homeschooling regulations revealed shocking truths: The majority of states have no way to assess students’ education progress, parents’ competence to educate their children at home, or the content of that education.
This lack of oversight has both mundane and disastrous consequences. In 2009, Georgetown law professor Robin West identified multiple distinct harms specifically due to unregulated homeschooling, including a greater risk of unreported abuse, a lower rate of childhood vaccination, and, as West puts it, the lack of “a safe haven in which they are both regarded and respected independently and individually.” In 2013, The Daily Beast covered the tragic story of Hana Williams, a homeschooled teenager who was killed by her fundamentalist Christian parents, taking advantage of the state’s inability to oversee their education—and disciplinary process.
Rev. Ashley Easter, the founder of the Courage Conference, could easily see HSLDA capitalizing off of parents’ fear to spread their narrow brand of homeschooling. “The way that [HSLDA] is able to easily [spread their message] is by influencing parents through fear, to get their children to stay at home, to not have access to other opinions … with the ultimate goal of ‘the more homeschoolers we have, the more money we get, the more children will be able to distribute through society with our particular slant and message,” she said.
Easter was homeschooled from kindergarten through 12th grade, then educated as a “stay-at-home-daughter,” all under the watchful eyes of her parents who belonged to the Quiverfull movement. Her parents were members of the HSLDA, she said, in order to protect themselves from legal action that the HSLDA said they, as homeschoolers, might be vulnerable to.
HSLDA is the legal and policy arm of a deep network of evangelical-right homeschoolers and supporters. It was founded in 1983 by Michael Farris, between his leadership of Pat Robertson’s Moral Majority and his founding of the evangelical Patrick Henry College. Farris established the association’s mission: “To preserve and advance the fundamental, God-given, constitutional right of parents and others legally responsible for their children to direct their education.”
To achieve its mission, HSLDA focuses on protecting “two fundamental freedoms—parental rights and religious freedom”—through policy advocacy and direct legal representation for its paying members. And according to a ProPublica profile from 2015, the HLSDA has been monumentally effective at blocking and rolling back any regulations placed on homeschooling families, including bills that would require homeschooling parents to submit proof of their children’s medical tests, require homeschoolers to undergo annual tests, or require state social services agencies to interview parents who homeschool. ProPublica also found the group has also successfully blocked grandparent visitation, mandatory high-school attendance, and state prekindergarten, all in its mission to deregulate homeschooling and hide homeschoolers from outside eyes.
Farris’ founding of the HLSDA in the early ‘80s, when homeschooling was still barred in every state, was a calculated move by a man tied intimately and directly with the larger evangelical-right political movements that arose during that decade. These close ties were borne out when, in 2017, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) hired Farris as its second president, CEO, and general counsel. Under the ADF’s previous leader, Brad Sears, the evangelical-right legal behemoth implemented a broad anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-LGBTQ agenda.
According to Political Research Associates, a think tank that monitors the U.S. religious and secular right, ADF stands at “the frontlines of the Christian right’s effort to redefine religious freedom and insert its anti-LGBTQ, anti-choice agenda into every element of government and society.” Fundamental to these efforts is dominion over children’s education, whether through the deregulation of homeschooling or the appointment of billionaire evangelical-funder Betsy DeVos to the U.S. Department of Education. “Thoroughgoing Christian Reconstructionists and families that practice Quiverfull believe that homeschooling is the only appropriate way to educate children,” said ex-evangelical scholar Chrissy Stroop. The current coronavirus pandemic has reminded Stroop of the rhetoric used to recruit her parents into the movement.
“In a sense, an entire generation of children have been subjected to a massive social experiment by our parents and religious leaders, who were so afraid of ‘the world’ that they systematically subjected us to varying degrees of isolation for purposes of hardline indoctrination and mobilization for the culture wars,” she said.
Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at Right Wing Watch, was blunt. “HSLDA has been a vehicle for turning homeschooling parents into an engaged political force,” he said.
Tori Williams Douglass is an anti-racist educator who was also homeschooled from kindergarten through 12th grade. She said that her mother, who used corporal punishment as part of her parenting and schooling theology, was deeply connected to the HSLDA through their local homeschooling group. When she and her siblings would ask why they were homeschooled, their mother would rely on the same fear-mongering rhetoric from the HSLDA via the homeschooling group: “Public schools are liberal indoctrination centers. There’s nobody who’s safe there. You’ll be sexually assaulted or molested. You aren’t allowed to call the police. They’ll call the government and they’ll put you into foster care and your foster parents will sexually abuse you.”
Williams Douglass shared that her mom and the other parents in their homeschooling group were frequently activated by the HSLDA to call legislators in other states in opposition to legislation that would regulate homeschooling.
As the news shifts daily and projections for social isolation are lengthened, people all over the globe are activated by fear and confusion, grasping for resources and supportive networks. Authoritarian systems, which offer quick answers to complicated questions, thrive in times of fear. Parents who are desperate for answers today may be unknowingly reaching for HSLDA-provided resources that will expose their children to further harm, rather than provide them with help during these desperate times. Instead of being manipulated by the evangelical-right to help deregulate American education, crisis-homeschooling parents must be offered clear, comprehensive, evidence-based resources to support our children through the coming months. The alternative is unthinkable.
The following resources are recommended for children learning at home:
National Education Association
Coalition for Responsible Home Education