When I was a young man, I spent a year in jail, followed by a year in a house arrest program. For the next few years, I reported regularly to the parole and probation office. Then—I went to law school."

You see, the quote above that I told you is completely accurate. But the way I told my story may have given you the wrong impression. 

Here is another way my story could be told.

A couple of years after I left the United States Navy, the Lord got ahold of me and turned me around. But He needed me to start over. He sent me from a Fortune 500 company in Los Angeles to rural Oregon to be an apprentice house framer and to meet my future wife, Debbie. After a little over a year, Debbie and I were married, and 16 months later, we had our first child. And house framing was not paying the bills.

The sheriff’s office had an ad in the paper for a corrections officer. The first step was to take a written test and to write a report about a mock jailhouse video where inmates got into a fight. About 30 applicants, most of whom—unlike me—had the advantage of previous experience, gathered to take the test. We were each given a number to use as our test ID so the examiners could score the tests blindly and impartially. The next day, the results were posted on the bulletin board—and my number had the highest score on both the written test and the mock report.

After working in the jail for about six months, I was sent to the police academy, where I graduated top of the class. Just then, the county announced it was starting a new house arrest program to relieve jail over-crowding. After a rigorous process, the county selected me to create and launch the program.

About a year later, there was an opening in the parole and probation office for a regular case officer—a promotion—and it was an eight to five, Monday through Friday job.

Around a year into the case officer job, the navy recalled me to active duty for the Persian Gulf War to serve as a naval liaison officer in various Persian Gulf ports, from Muscat, Oman, to ad-Dammām, Saudi Arabia.

After I arrived back home from that experience, Debbie and I felt the Lord was calling us to something different. So, two years later, we quit the probation job, sold our house, packed up our three kids, and moved to Virginia Beach and Regent University School of Law.

You see, being simply accurate about our story is not good enough. It makes a difference how we tell our story.

The times, they are a-changin’

Three years ago, HSLDA launched a new, multi-year approach to strategic planning. We did this for the sake of being good stewards as an organization, and more importantly, we knew we wanted to be better leaders in and servants to the homeschooling movement. Just then, the Financial Accounting Standards Board—the premier standard-setting body for nonprofit organizations, like HSLDA—announced new standards for nonprofits (never a pleasant prospect). These standards were designed to make it easier for donors and others to understand the way nonprofits spend their money. Implementing those new standards required us to rethink the way we achieved the mission of protecting and advancing homeschool freedom: we started using programs in addition to departments.

In short: programs are what we do to advance our mission. Departments are the way we organize ourselves internally. A program can span more than one department: for example, a legal threat that emerges in one school district may have national implications. A lawyer (legal department) may write about the national issue for publication in the Home School Court Report (communications department) and do an interview with a radio station (media department). Or our educational consultants (consultant department) might put on a webinar (communications department) to help moms and dads of high school students prepare their kids for college.

During our discussions about strategic planning for the next several years and changes we needed to make to adapt to updated nonprofit financial reporting standards, we realized that HSLDA did not have an intentional cross-departmental program to describe a vital aspect of what we have always done and what we want to do better.

Because we had been accustomed to thinking about what we do department by department, we realized that we could use a new program to coordinate our efforts, expand our departmental perspectives, and increase our effectiveness. Here’s how our president, Mike Smith, updated the way we describe what we do: “We will passionately advocate for the freedom to homeschool in the courts, the legislatures, and in the court of public opinion." 

We called the new program “Educating the Public.” And because you—our members—are partners with us in advocating for homeschooling, I want to share with you more about what this means.

Educating the public: Telling the story of homeschooling

Educating the public is neither advertising, nor marketing to get people to join our organization, nor legislative lobbying, whether grassroots or direct—even though each of these may have an “educational” component.

Advocating for homeschooling and homeschool freedom in the court of public opinion is a purposeful effort to communicate to the public at large—as well as to other thought leaders in think tanks, the media, and wherever educational issues are spoken about—what homeschooling is, how it works, and why it is good for kids. Misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of homeschooling abound. It is important that we tell the true story of homeschooling—often, winsomely, and accurately.

Since then, we have fleshed out and implemented how we will advocate in the court of public opinion moving forward. Things we have identified include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • More proactively forecasting the threats and opportunities for homeschooling in the future.
  • Developing higher presence in the media and deepening our professional and intentional approach. We are aware that HSLDA is proficient in the “ground war”—that is, mobilizing grassroots—but we need to become more effective in the “air war”—that is, in the media. Those who want homeschooling to be more regulated have been actively pursuing a media strategy, and we need to be better at getting our story out there—not just in reaction to negative media coverage.
  • Conducting, commissioning, and publishing homeschooling research and white papers.
  • Expanding our opportunities for thought leadership.

To these ends, HSLDA hired a PR professional with over a decade of experience in corporate media campaigns, so we can be more intentional in telling the story of homeschooling and more effective in responding to critics in the media.

And, just when our board approved creating a formal research department and hiring a director of research, I heard from HSLDA’s longtime friend, Dr. Steve Duvall, that he was retiring from his position at Pittsburgh State University and would be available to serve as our director of research.[1]

The process in 2020

Two significant events occurred in 2020 that demonstrate the timeliness of an expanded focus on advocating for homeschooling in the court of public opinion: the mid-March school closures due to COVID-19, and the mid-April profile of Professor Bartholet’s anti-homeschooling law-review article in Harvard Magazine.

In response to COVID-19, under our Educating the Public program, our communications, legal, and educational consultant departments teamed up to launch an outreach campaign designed to help families unexpectedly at home with their kids, sharing motivation and resources that would enable them to confidently embark on their homeschool journey during a distressing time. And our attorneys and educational consultants participated in media interviews and wrote articles about how homeschooling could make life more manageable and meaningful for families during the pandemic. We have also conducted numerous Facebook Live interviews and produced over 25 webinars to assist new homeschoolers in getting started and—more importantly—to help them enjoy and be successful in their homeschool experience.[2]

Professor Bartholet’s law-review article, as amplified by the mid-April story in Harvard Magazine, prompted a widespread backlash and renewed interest in homeschool freedom. In response, HSLDA published weekly articles on our website, [3] addressing in serial fashion the arguments she made in her 80-page article. These were written by each one of our attorneys as well as by our founder Mike Farris, by Brian Ray of National Home Education Research Institute, and by Steve Duvall before he came to start our research department. We collected our Professor Bartholet essays and published them in book form, called Homeschool Freedom: How It Works and Why We Must Protect It.

We also filed an amicus brief in a high-profile Detroit public school case in which we pointed out that the legal issue, if wrongly decided, would threaten homeschool freedom in exactly the way Professor Bartholet would have wanted. That case resolved favorably. [4]

In response to both COVID-19 and Professor Bartholet, HSLDA authors have been able to expand HSLDA’s thought leadership by writing articles and op-eds for national media outlets. These in turn have generated interviews and offered us more opportunities to talk nationally about homeschooling and homeschool freedom.

The opportunities and risks of the next 30 years will likely be different from those of the last 30 years—so we must adapt and be nimble.

We consider you— our members and donors, along with friends of homeschooling, homeschool leaders, and homeschool organizations of all sizes—to be vital partners in our joint efforts to protect, promote, and advance homeschooling and homeschool freedom. You’re also our fellow storytellers, recounting the successes, challenges, and unique experiences of your family’s homeschooling journey to those around you.

Telling our stories together, we will keep homeschooling free for future generations.