How to Lead in Changing Times
by Mike Smith • January 25, 2018
This article is based on a speech I gave at HSLDA’s National Leaders Conference in September 2017. I hope it will give you some insights into the characteristics of today’s homeschoolers and how we can effectively lead our groups.
Chris Klicka argued persuasively that homeschooling was the right choice many years ago, when he first published his book Home Schooling: The Right Choice in 1995. Chris passed away in 2009, having significantly advanced homeschooling through his leadership. We would not be where we are today without him.
The school choice movement is not new. Long before Chris wrote his book, homeschooling parents were choosing to take full responsibility for their children’s education. For those early parents and leaders, the right choice was the ultimate choice—done without any government financial assistance and in the face of state opposition, under the threat of being taken to court, fined, jailed, or losing custody of their children. Some of you might remember those days.
Although today’s school choice movement tries to encourage more families to choose private education options with the help of government money, many homeschooling parents and advocates—including HSLDA—disagree with this approach. Government money will inevitably be followed by regulation.
Besides, the growth of homeschooling hasn’t come about as a result of money or slick marketing.
Going way back, many families were motivated to start homeschooling by radio. In 1981, Dr. James Dobson interviewed Drs. Raymond and Dorothy Moore on Focus on the Family’s radio program. When I heard that broadcast, I became an immediate advocate for homeschooling—beginning with convincing my wife that she could do it. The miracle was, she didn’t take much convincing. She was on board almost immediately upon hearing about the benefits of homeschooling.
The early growth in homeschooling came about by books, articles, and word of mouth. Unpaid (and often unrecognized) leaders like you organized conventions and support groups that carried this message to parents: Homeschooling is good for kids, and you can do it!
There is not a word or group of words big enough to describe the importance of what leaders of homeschool organizations continue to do to help families and to advance God’s Kingdom.
Let’s fast-forward to today. Homeschooling is legal and accessible in every state and territory. We’ve gone from being an enemy of the state to being viewed as a source of revenue for public schools, inviting lots of interaction between homeschooling and the government.
- Many state laws (sometimes called equal access or Tebow laws) permit some form of access to public school facilities by homeschoolers. Only seven states specifically prohibit homeschool usage of public school facilities and assets.
- Parents are now being paid by the state to teach their children at home—“public school at home.” These programs go by different names but the commonalities are that the state will buy the curriculum (if not overtly religious), provide a computer, and pay for extracurricular activities.
- In South Dakota, a public school superintendent recently sent a letter to the homeschoolers in his district, asking them to enroll their children on September 29 for one day only. He would give each child a free computer, no strings attached. The only thing they had to do was refile their annual notice of intent to homeschool.
The fear of opposition and prosecution has virtually disappeared—and that’s good thing. But it also means less appreciation for the freedom that ensures homeschooling’s success. Fewer parents are interested in joining, donating to, and participating in advocacy groups like state organizations and HSLDA. There is little urgency among the newbies to join a battle that, in their minds, doesn’t exist.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which does research for the U.S. Department of Education, began doing statistical analysis of homeschooling in 1999. Then, it estimated there were 850,000 homeschoolers; in its last survey, in 2012, the estimate was 1.8 million. I believe there are over 2 million children being homeschooled today. This includes all forms of homeschooling, including public school at home.
NCES statistics indicate the makeup of the movement has changed over time. In the 2007 study, 36% of families cited religious instruction as their primary reason for homeschooling. In 2012, 17% gave religious instruction as their primary reason. Twenty-five percent in 2012 said the environment in schools was their primary motivation for homeschooling.
In her 2013 book Home Is Where the School Is, sociologist Jennifer Lois broadly divided homeschoolers into two groups: first-choice and second-choice homeschoolers. A 2017 Pioneer Institute whitepaper characterized the groups this way: “The ‘first-choice’ family is in essence the traditional homeschooling family, viewing homeschooling as a lifestyle and an integral part of a student’s growth. ‘Second-choice’ homeschooling parents might be described as ‘pragmatic homeschoolers,’ perhaps even ‘reluctant homeschoolers.’ . . . this sub-set tends to view homeschooling as a stop-gap solution to a school-based problem as opposed to an overall family lifestyle.”
A study recently commissioned by HSLDA indicated that these two groups are now about evenly divided.
What else do we know about today’s homeschoolers?
- Ninety percent of homeschooled children live in two-parent homes.
- Eight percent of parents with school-age children have homeschooled at one time or another.
- Roughly half of homeschooling families send one or more of their children to a traditional school.
- Nearly 10% of military families homeschool, twice to three times the rate of nonmilitary families.
- The racial makeup of homeschooled children is: white (68%), Hispanic (15%), black (8%), and other (9%).
- Fifteen percent of homeschooled children have special needs.
- Children are homeschooled, on average, for two years.
With the increasing diversity of homeschoolers, here are two things that all homeschooling parents continue to share: They believe the overall environment of the traditional public school system is not conducive to the best interests of their children, and they believe the rights of parents in their children’s education should supersede the state’s.
The new homeschoolers coming along are much less likely to be like the typical homeschool leader. Many of us who continue to lead homeschool groups today got our start in homeschooling 20, 30, or even more years ago. The assumptions we made back then about why families homeschool and what they need from support organizations are not as likely to hold true today. That could be a scary thing, or it could motivate us to keep growing as leaders so we can serve the hundreds of thousands of parents who now homeschool.
Let’s remember that money and slick marketing weren’t what made homeschooling take off like it did in the 1980s and ʼ90s. To illustrate that, I’d like to share this story.
The Robin Diegel story
Robin was a member of HSLDA living in Ohio. The public school superintendent decided that she was not properly qualified to teach her children at home and had her prosecuted for truancy. We assigned the case to Mike Farris, our president at the time and one of the finest defenders of homeschool freedom in the world. Mike prepared a trial brief, anticipating that the trial judge would review the brief and conclude that the way Ohio criminal law was being applied to Robin was clearly unconstitutional.
The day before the trial, Mike went up to Ohio to prepare Robin in case she would have to testify. While Mike and Robin were getting to know each other, she indicated that she had received tremendous support from a group of Christian ladies and that they had something she was missing. Mike realized that Robin was not a believer and introduced Jesus Christ to her as her Savior and future Lord. Then and there, Robin prayed with Mike to become a Christian.
Mike was very excited about what had just transpired and, speaking with utmost confidence, told Robin, “I believe God is going to do something great for you tomorrow in that courtroom.” Mike had two thoughts at that time: Robin is now a Christian and I having a winning brief.
The next day, when they showed up for trial, the judge asked Mike and the prosecutor to come back into his chambers. This is not unusual, but what happened next was. The judge told Mike that the brief was well written and showed obvious expertise in constitutional law. However, he disagreed with Mike’s arguments, and Robin would be found guilty of truancy at the end of the trial. Mike tried to persuade the judge to reconsider, without success.
The trial began with the school superintendent taking the stand to testify that Robin’s children were truant. It was Mike’s turn to cross-examine. He was following the scripted questions on his yellow tablet when a thought entered his mind: Ask the witness if he talked to anyone before he had charges filed against Robin. Mike dismissed the idea because it could successfully be objected to on relevancy grounds and went on with his questioning.
But after the thought surfaced again in his mind, he thought, Oh, okay, what do we have to lose? Mike asked the school official if he had talked to anyone prior to filing the complaint. The man responded that he had. (No objection from the prosecutor.) So, Mike asked who it was the superintendent had talked to. His answer shocked the courtroom. “I spoke to the judge here”—pointing to the trial judge presiding over the case.
Well, you can imagine the stir that came across the homeschoolers in the audience. The judge immediately called a recess and ordered the school official, the prosecutor, and Mike back into his chambers. He directed his instructions to the prosecutor and school official: “Find a way to allow this lady to homeschool, now!”
HSLDA had won another homeschool case—but had we? No. This was simply God intervening on behalf of Robin and every homeschooler in the state of Ohio.
Here’s how that story applies to our current challenges as leaders in homeschooling:
- Mike prepared for this trial as if the entire weight of the decision was upon him and his brief. Psalm 127 says that we labor to build the house, but the Lord builds it. Whatever we decide to do, we should do it with all the energy we have and give it our absolute best effort always.
- Was there anything more important that happened that day than Robin’s salvation? The seed had been planted by the love extended to her by the Christian homeschooling ladies who had come alongside her. Mike’s heart was open to serving a member of HSLDA who was not a Christian. All homeschoolers have one major thing in common with all other homeschoolers: we love our children enough to make the sacrifice to homeschool. As we serve this community, we need to remember that we advance God’s Kingdom not only by helping Christian homeschoolers, but by supporting non-Christian homeschoolers as well. Who knows? We may get the opportunity, as Mike did, to lead a soul into the Kingdom.
- Mike was open to creative ideas that didn’t seem to make sense. Are we open to change? It will probably be necessary to meet the changing trends in homeschooling. Maybe we need to survey some new homeschoolers to find out how we can best serve them.
- Mike was supported by the prayer of his co-laborers at HSLDA and Ohio homeschoolers. Pray without ceasing, and get others praying for your organization. We need God’s wisdom, direction, and blessing going forward.
We face major challenges as homeschool leaders, but God has called us to the impossible ever since we decided to homeschool, ever since we decided to take an active role in leading others to homeschool. We will not have all the answers. But that’s okay.
When the Apostle Paul had prayed three times to be relieved of his thorn in the flesh, God told him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s response was that he would then gladly glory in his weaknesses so the power of Christ could rest upon him.
At our weakest time, a time when we simply can’t control things to make them better, we are in the best position we could possibly be in. It opens the windows of heaven for God to pour out a blessing, as he did for Robin and her girls.
And what He has done for others, He’ll do for you.