Court Report

How a Haircut, a Heron, and a Used Bookstore Saved This Article!

Finding a hook for a writing project always helps me get rolling. But sometimes finding the hook is hard. Fatigue, stress, the holidays—all are serviceable excuses for not putting words to screen, even if they are not always entirely accurate. When I was a navy officer in San Diego, we joked that any sailor arriving late to the ship in the morning always had an excuse that began one of three ways: “My dog, he . . . ,” “my wife, she . . . ,” or “my car, it . . . .” So it is for writer’s block.


Over the years as an attorney, I’ve learned that court deadlines for legal writing are one of those things that tend to focus the mind—hook or no hook. And after the twelfth request for an update, the expression on the face of Suzanne Stephens, HSLDA’s VP for Getting Writers to Write Stuff, can focus the mind much the same as a remorseless judicial deadline.

All of this to foreshadow how sometimes when you can’t find the hook, mercifully, the hook finds you.

But first—a parable.

Serendipity is impossible to manufacture—by definition. But recognizing it when it happens is a gift. I received such a gift on a recent Saturday afternoon at the Berryville Old Book Shop, which is just down the street from Potter’s Barber Shop. The used bookstore is a monthly, post-haircut stop for me, to check out Archie’s newest acquisitions.

Out of place, almost out of reach behind the clutter on top of a tall stack, lay a children’s book I’d never seen before. Now there are a lot of children’s books I’ve never seen before, and most of them I never open. But the compelling cover art of this book had a boy with a red kite, a monkey, a dog, and a flying heron. And the title intrigued me: The Three Questions: Based on a Story by Leo Tolstoy. I reached down and opened to the dust jacket flap: “When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?”

At a used bookstore in Berryville, Virginia, Jim spotted the cover of The Three Questions: Based on a Story by Leo Tolstoy, written by Jon Muth.

These three questions snapped me out of my Saturday afternoon languor and alerted me to the possibility that the next moment just might be infused with eternal significance. So, I read on. “When young Nikolai seeks counsel from Leo, the wise old turtle who lives in the mountains, he is sure Leo will know the answers to his three questions. But it is Nikolai’s own response to a stranger’s cry for help that leads him directly to the answers he is looking for.”

As you may have guessed, I read the book right straight through. And bought it for six dollars. Then I googled the original Tolstoy parable on my handheld supercomputer and read it, too, right straight through. Here is what the hermit (turtle) in the Tolstoy story told the king (Nikolai):

Remember then: there is only one time that is important—now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary person is the one with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with anyone else: and the most important affair is to do that person good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life.

The moral of Tolstoy’s story recalled for me Jesus’s parable of the good Samaritan and a quote from the Bible, found in the book of Hebrews, chapter 13: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

And the book gave me a much-needed hook.

For my first Court Report essay as president of HSLDA, as we reach our 40th year, I want to take this opportunity to describe how I see the work of HSLDA from the beginning in 1983 right down to this day. Especially our mission to make homeschooling possible.


For you, your children, and grandchildren.

With zeal, compassion, and excellence.

We are homeschoolers too, and we care about homeschoolers and homeschool freedom right down to our bones.

And the answers to Tolstoy’s three questions will help lead the way.

When is the best time to do things?

Today is the most important time to preserve and protect homeschool freedom. We live in a very different world from that of 1983, when HSLDA’s founders Mike Farris and Mike Smith saw a need and boldly addressed it. But times change, and so has the need in the homeschooling movement for a national legal and policy advocacy organization dedicated to homeschool freedom and—perhaps more importantly—to homeschoolers.

Consider: in the year of HSLDA’s creation, 1983, Motorola introduced the first mobile phones to the public. The DynaTac 8000X took 10 hours to charge, offered 30 minutes of talk time, cost over $10,000 in 2023 dollars, and was nicknamed “the brick.” That same year, Nintendo introduced Mario Bros. to arcades in Japan, and ARPANET officially adopted the Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). And the rest, as they say, is history.

Homeschooling was emerging as a modern educational option at just about the same time. It is estimated that fewer than 100,000 children were homeschooled in 1983, which was a dramatic increase from the 13,000 homeschooled children estimated just 10 years earlier.[1]

Back in 1983, HSLDA kept track of its members in file drawers, and activated telephone trees to get the word out quickly. Today, an estimated 7–8 million children are being homeschooled, nearly double prepandemic numbers.[2] And HSLDA keeps our member records in a secure, sophisticated database that enables us to serve over 100,000 member families—or about 600,000 people.

In the olden days, there were far fewer homeschoolers, but the legal battles tended to be bigger, more focused on whether homeschooling was even legal at all. Many states back then took the position that homeschooling was illegal unless one of the child’s parents possessed a state teaching license.

The last big case to address the legality of homeschooling on a statewide basis was in California in 2008, In Re Jonathan L. In a surprise ruling, an appellate court held in February 2008 that homeschooling without a license had never been legal in California—to the surprise and alarm of tens of thousands of California homeschool families. But after HSLDA got involved and rallied other freedom-loving people and organizations to speak up, the same three judges reversed themselves that August, holding that homeschooling was legal after all.

To fully appreciate how remarkably intense those five months were,  please read A Look Back at the Great California Homeschool case of 2008 (And What It Means for Today).[3] You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. It will move you, Bob.

One of the great lessons I learned working on that case was that the diligent labor of homeschool advocates over the years, often behind the scenes, led to the winning argument in 2008: each time a statutory proposal might have affected California’s private school statute in a way that harmed homeschoolers, advocates were able to get amendments that protected homeschooling.

In just one example, all private school employees were required to be fingerprinted, but that statute was amended in 1998 because of the diligence of the dedicated homeschool advocates at California’s Family Protection Ministries (FPM), a legislative watchdog group. FPM made sure the law excluded “a parent or legal guardian working exclusively with his or her children.” 

The word “homeschooling” was never used in any statute, but when we presented the court with all the examples where statutes protected homeschool-type private schools, the court agreed in its August 2008 opinion “. . . that California statutes permit homeschooling as a species of private school education.”

What those quiet advocates did in their “today” in 1998 saved homeschooling 10 years later in 2008. Like them, we need to be diligent in all our own todays.

Supreme Commanders of the Education Empire

Speaking of “big cases”: as you read my next thoughts about another challenge we face today, please play The Imperial March from Star Wars while you imagine a group of educational elites striding on screen, wielding shining sharp pens that crackle and zing as they etch scathing criticisms of homeschooling through the air.

These educational elites hail from far corners of the galaxy, but have this in common: they believe every parent and every child should be subject to their Educational Empire’s careful monitoring, tight regulations, and prescribed curriculum.

The group includes such famous ivory tower inhabitants as Stanford political science professor Robert Reich, Harvard School of Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet, William & Mary Law School professor James Dwyer, and more.

Since 2002, Reich has been insisting that the Empire should determine what is appropriate for parents to teach and has proposed multiple ways that families could prove their curriculum aligns with the Empire’s values and beliefs.[4]

In 2020, Professor Bartholet famously wrote a law-review article advocating for a “presumptive ban” of homeschooling, suggesting that most homeschoolers are backward clods who can’t be trusted. When the Harvard Crimson magazine profiled Professor Bartholet’s article in April of 2020, COVID-19 wasn’t the only thing that went viral.

The outcry was immediate and widespread. Professor Bartholet heard from homeschooled Harvard alums, current students, and parents;[5] from academics who study education and homeschooling;[6] and, from a ragtag bunch of lovable homeschool advocates who wrote 17 essays over the next few weeks, in a series called HSLDA’s Response to Harvard Professor Bartholet.[7]

While we might enjoy using fun metaphors to describe the educational elite and their efforts, including the ironic timing of Professor Bartholet’s unveiling her proposed homeschooling ban just as public schools all over America were closing due to COVID-19, we must never forget that they aren’t joking. They mean it. And they are not alone among intellectual elites who do not agree with us about homeschool freedom.

In December 2022, a comedian I’d never heard of tweeted, “It’s insane to me that homeschooling is an accepted practice in this country.” She continued with the backward-clod trope and collected 17,000 retweets, 3,800 quote tweets, and 162,000 likes.[8] The opponents of homeschool freedom have not left the field, which is why today—and every day—HSLDA is on watch to expose and address this kind of threat. 

Another now: When the “ayes” have it!

By my expert count, there are approximately 55 legislatures in these United States: one federal, 50 state, one federal district, and three territorial. And they all love to dedicate bridges to Harvey K. Smedlap. But that’s not the point. They also love to pass laws. Laws about this. And laws about that. Someday our law cup will runneth over.

But not this year. In 2023, HSLDA estimates more than 150,000 proposed laws will either be introduced or carried over from last session. Now, these bills may not directly reference homeschooling. However, we’ve learned through experience over many years that sometimes bills referencing things like private schools, compulsory attendance ages, employment opportunities, jury duty requirements, zoning regulations, or daytime curfews can indirectly have a big effect on homeschooling families or groups.

The HSLDA legal team, together with state homeschooling advocates, monitors each of these legislatures every day, and keeps an eye on dozens of administrative agencies, which can also promulgate regulations that adversely affect homeschool freedom. We will work to improve homeschool laws where we can, and we will oppose any retrenchments should the Empire try to strike back.

Who is the most important one?

In some ways it’s easier for me to look at the big picture and think big thoughts about the future than it is to appreciate the work HSLDA does every day.

But the most important person is the homeschool mom on the phone with us right now—calling us about a distressing letter she received from her school superintendent. At its heart, HSLDA is a nonprofit, public-interest law firm dedicated to helping homeschool moms and dads just like you and me in their hour of distress.

In 2022, HSLDA’s legal team handled almost 20,000 contacts. Just under 14,000 of those were general homeschooling questions. Around 1,100 were homeschool graduates who experienced some form of discrimination because their homeschool education was treated as second class. And 2,700 involved a family who had been approached by either a school official or Child Protective Services investigator.

Often we can fix the problem with a letter or phone call. My motto is to win early and win often. But while we delight in resolving the issues homeschoolers bring to us as quickly and as painlessly as possible, we are always on watch for the seeds of a bigger problem that begins as a small one. And if the government official who is “just there to help” wants to dance to the tune of unlawful authority, the HSLDA legal team is always ready to do-sido—all day, every day.

A real-life example from New York

Here’s how that do-si-do works in real life: consider the case of Tanya Acevedo, a single mom in New York City who withdrew her child to homeschool midyear. Tanya did everything New York’s homeschool regulation required, but New York City’s Central Office of Home Schooling was undermanned and chronically behind in doing what the antiquated New York regulation required of it.

The central office failed to notify the public school to remove Tanya’s child from the school’s attendance rolls. After 30 days of incorrectly logged “absences,” the public school reported Tanya for “educational neglect.” An investigator showed up at her door after-hours, demanding to interview her child and inspect her apartment.

HSLDA lawyers are on call 24/7 to handle homeschool-related legal emergencies. Tanya called our answering service, and it transferred the call to me at home around 7:00 p.m. The CPS investigator agreed that this was not a real emergency and left. My colleague Tj Schmidt took over the next day, and helped Tanya get the investigation closed satisfactorily.

But because New York City’s treatment of homeschoolers was generally contrary to law, affecting thousands, we were able to use Tanya’s bad experience for good, by suing former Mayor Bill De Blasio and others. The lawsuit resulted in New York City entering a consent decree, with a court-supervised promise to clean up its act and report its compliance to HSLDA every quarter for two years, which just recently ended. The situation for all homeschoolers in New York City improved because of a homeschool mom named Tanya.

We never know when one of the tens of thousands of emails and phone calls we get every year will set into motion a series of events that will expand the boundaries of homeschool freedom. But one of my greatest blessings being an HSLDA lawyer has been participating in many cases like the one with Tanya.

And today, in early 2023, we are in the early stages of possibly similar events in Ohio, Kentucky, and New Jersey. Each on behalf of a real live homeschooler. They may resolve quickly, or they may become the next big case.

What is the right thing to do for individual homeschoolers?

When Tanya Acevedo or another homeschool mom (or dad, maybe you!) is on the phone with a question, problem, or emergency, we serve her with zeal, compassion, and excellence in every department at HSLDA. Our legal team strives to help her calmly understand all the options, and to assist with the same level of personalized professionalism that a corporate VP would get from a big-name law firm. And whether it’s one of our special needs consultants helping with a plan for a challenged learner, or a representative of our charitable program who helps homeschoolers in need obtain one of our donor-supported HSLDA Compassion grants, we all aspire to make life better and easier for the person who’s called us for help. By helping the person right in front of us, and by doing our best for her, we believe that the homeschooling movement writ large will be stronger and healthier too.

These are our aspirations, our reasons for being, our most heartfelt convictions.

What is the right thing to do for homeschool groups?

Sometimes the one we do good for isn’t an individual person, but a group of homeschooling families. The freedom of parents to choose private home education has led, of necessity, to the organic creation of a vibrant private ecosystem of families, co-ops, support groups, and state organizations, which are neither required by law nor commanded or funded by state officials. Each of these in its own way, and all of them together, contribute to the civic health of society—what I called in another Court Report essay “the civic virtue of private home education.”[9] Perhaps your family is part of a local co-op or a state organization—and you know the combined strength and encouragement that comes from being part of a supportive homeschool community.

While one of HSLDA’s main goals over the years has been to remove legal barriers for families, we also foster and support the efforts of homeschoolers and groups—to make homeschooling possible more widely, in community, suited to the unique needs and desires of a free people to associate and organize according to their own deeply held beliefs and aspirations. We believe that—for the good of the families and kids who have chosen to homeschool with others—promoting this organic association is the right thing to do.

Bottom line: Today is the day!

It’s important for you to know—and for me to affirm here—that HSLDA is a Christian organization, and that our mission to make homeschooling possible falls right in sync with Tolstoy’s three questions and his answers. These answers resonated so deeply with me because I believe, as I described in “The Civic Virtue,” that raising, nurturing, and educating children falls under the laws of nature and nature’s God. And more specifically (if you share my Christian, biblical worldview) that God placed children in the family as His institution on earth for raising kids, and that all parents (whether they share my biblical worldview or not) owe a duty to the Creator to equip kids with the love, knowledge, and tools they need to become caring, responsible adults.

Flowing out of that perspective, HSLDA believes that the homeschool dad singing the ABC song to his 4-year-old son; the mom leading the weekly co-op; the volunteer organizing speakers for the state homeschool convention; and a merry band of dedicated homeschool advocates in Purcellville, Virginia, personally assisting families of all backgrounds every day, are all playing a part in creating a vibrant society and an environment of freedom that promotes human flourishing.

In closing, I want to circle back to Tolstoy’s three questions:

  • When is the best time to do things?
  • Who is the most important one?
  • What is the right thing to do?

For HSLDA, the best time is now. The most important one is you, Tanya, or any other homeschool mom or dad on the phone with a question, problem, or emergency. The right thing to do is good, and for us that’s helping you make homeschooling possible for your family so your kids can grow up and discover for themselves the best time, the most important one, and the right thing to do.

Jim is an attorney, litigator, and homeschooling dad who has helped HSLDA win a number of landmark cases establishing and protecting homeschool freedom.