Editor’s note: As Mike Smith prepares to retire from the position of HSLDA President, he and his successor—current Vice President of Litigation, Jim Mason—decided to sit down and reflect on some of the challenges, successes, and stories from their time together at HSLDA. The following is an edited transcription from that conversation.
So, Mike, you’ve been involved with homeschooling for a long time. Let’s talk about how it all began. How did you and your wife Elizabeth start homeschooling way back in the day?
Back in 1981, we were living in Santa Monica, California. We had four children: two high schoolers, a 5-year-old, and a 3-year-old. I was an attorney in private practice. As I was on my way to court one day, unfortunately, there was a traffic jam—not unusual in California—and so I was stuck. I always listened to a popular daily radio show called Focus on the Family in the morning, and on that particular morning, Dr. James Dobson had Dr. Raymond Moore and Dorothy Moore on the show.
Both Moores were experts in early childhood education, and they didn’t start talking about homeschooling originally. But they did start talking about readiness in terms of when children should begin school. And what they said was totally opposed to what I thought about education. They said that children were better off going to school later than earlier, and that most kids shouldn’t be starting formal schooling until about 8 or 9 years of age.
I thought, “Come on!” After all, I didn’t have the benefit of preschool, because Arkansas—where I had grown up—didn’t have preschool. We didn’t even have kindergarten. So we just started in the first grade, and I started at 5 years of age. All my life until that radio show, I had thought, If I had just had preschool and kindergarten education, I would be a lot smarter than I am today.
But the Moores had actually written two books on the subject: Better Late than Early and School Can Wait. I bought those books and read a lot of them, just to see if the research was there to support what they were saying—and it was!
But back to the radio conversation about early education: Dr. Dobson then asked the Moores to talk about the concept of homeschooling. According to Raymond Moore, he and Dorothy learned about the idea of homeschooling from other parents who had decided that they wouldn’t put their kids in school. It’s not that they weren’t educating their kids—they were—the education was just at home, and there were a lot of parents doing it . . . in 1981!
They called it “homeschooling,” and I had never heard that word before in my life. But I was intrigued and convinced that it was something my lovely wife, Elizabeth, and I should look into. So I canceled my afternoon appointment, went home, and sat down with Elizabeth to explain homeschooling to her. After all, after that 30-minute program, I was an expert! I knew more than 99.9% of the American population did about homeschooling and early education.
After I explained it all to her, I asked if she would be interested. She didn’t say no—which, you know, would have been expected. But she didn’t.
Instead, she said, “Well, yeah, I would consider it. I’d like to know more about it.”
So I got a hold of Dr. Moore that week, and he said, “Well, come to a homeschool conference. We’re out in California.”
“Oh, how convenient,” I thought.
Then Dr. Moore said, “How about this weekend?”
Well, we did it.
We took our kids up there and we went to the conference . . . and we were blown away. There was a guy named Elmer Brooks who was there, and Elmer had devised a hands-on program for math, called Math It. He asked us to give him a multiplication problem—any kind of multiplication problem. And he could actually come up with the correct answer before a person could do it on a calculator.
And what I’ll never forget is that he was in overalls—he was just a country farmer who had devised this math program!
So we bought that program . . . and with it, we bought into homeschooling. Within a week, we started our new educational program, and I attribute that to the Moores.
I want to back up a bit: you said you started off in private practice. How did you actually become an attorney in the first place?
My great grandfather was a lawyer. My grandfather was a judge. So I when I was a kid, I just thought, “I’m going to be a lawyer. Why not? That’s what my family does.”
Even before I was in junior high school, I would go down to the courthouse and watch trials. I was the only kid watching trials down there, but I was just interested in it. When I started college, I entered and completed the pre-law program.
The draft came along, and so I had to enlist in the Navy—but after I got out of the Navy, I went to law school. I graduated from the University of San Diego and passed the California bar exam, and that was the long and short of my start as an attorney.
So how did you become a lawyer with Home School Legal Defense Association? I mean, you said that you hadn’t even heard the word “homeschooling” in 1981—and by 1983, you were on the new board of directors as Mike Farris founded HSLDA. How in the world did that happen?
Well, between 1981 and 1983, I discovered a lot of things about homeschooling: first and foremost, it was considered illegal in most places, including in the state of California. The California Department of Education had sent out a circular soon after we started in 1981, indicating that homeschooling could only be done by certified teachers who were accredited by the state of California.
Well, that eliminated 95 percent of moms. So that was my first exposure to homeschooling from a lawyer’s perspective: I realized, “Oh, we could be subject to prosecution for this.” And, “Oh, didn’t I take an oath to uphold the laws of the Constitution and the laws of the state of California? I think I did. So does this mean I might be breaking the law?”
So that thrust me into a sticky situation. I got in contact with the Rutherford Institute, which was one of the few constitutional legal advocacy organizations at the time. They sent me some information, and I found out that there were actually a couple of cases that we could use to argue that we could legally homeschool.
Well, shortly after 1981, people somehow found out that Mike Smith, a lawyer, was homeschooling: maybe Mike Smith could be their free lawyer! So that’s how I got involved in homeschool advocacy.
I actually met Mike Farris at a homeschool conference where the Moores were speaking. He was having the same problem in the state of Washington: many parents wanting to homeschool were looking for (free) help from a lawyer. At the time, you needed to be a certified teacher in Washington to homeschool.
Mike devised the idea of a homeschooling-advocacy organization from that experience: if the state wanted to prosecute families for homeschooling, what were the choices back then? Move? Capitulate? Try to hire a lawyer? All very expensive, so the idea was to offer competent legal homeschool representation that people could afford.
And Mike Farris started HSLDA with you in 1983, right? How did you operate in those early days?
I was still in my own private practice when I started with HSLDA—it was just on a part-time basis at that point. As more people started to reach out to us for legal representation, Mike Farris took east of the Mississippi River, and I took the west, to divide up the labor. After some time, we hired Chris Klicka to help with the workload, and I eventually started working at HSLDA full-time in 1987.
So when you started HSLDA, and in the first couple of years after, did you ever expect homeschooling to become what it has become today?
No, I had no idea. As a matter of fact, when Mike asked me to come to HSLDA full-time in 1987, I was thinking, “is this really smart?” It meant we had to move from California to Virginia.
And of course, seeing the early pioneers in homeschooling and the commitment they had—what homeschooling was doing for so many families, including mine—I knew it was a good thing. But I didn’t know if a lot of people would do it. Certainly not like what we have today.
So what did you see homeschooling doing in your own family?
Well, we started with our son, who was 5. We also had three daughters: a 3-year-old, a 10th grader who was in a small private school, and a 12th grader who opted to finish out her senior year in the public school. Because our 10th grader was unhappy with her school situation, she decided to try homeschooling for the rest of 10th grade—and she loved it because it gave her a lot of freedom.
Shortly thereafter, she started taking some classes at the community college two blocks from our house. How convenient. She was able to start waitressing and start earning her own money. She really appreciated that. Almost all her friends were in traditional high schools. They called her school “homeschool tech.” They wanted to be in homeschool tech, too!
You mentioned that your wife, Elizabeth, was one of the founding board members of Home School Legal Defense Association. She, in her own right, has become quite a force in homeschooling as a speaker and organizer and more!
When we founded HSLDA, we had four board members: Mike Farris, Vickie Farris, Mike Smith, and Elizabeth Smith. Then we brought Jim Carden and his wife, Jeanie, on board and we just kept growing.
But my wife did get into speaking—she spoke quite a bit at conferences. People enjoyed listening to her, and she had really good material.
I know faith has played a huge part in your life and in your homeschooling. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Well, I was raised as a Christian in a Christian family; I was baptized at an early age, and I regularly attended church all the way up until high school—nearly perfect attendance, as I recall.
But it wasn’t until later in my life that I really started growing in my faith, even up to when my family moved out here to Virginia. And when I started learning about home education, I realized that—at least in those early years—many homeschooling families shared many of our family’s beliefs. So homeschooling allowed my wife and I to make faith part of our kids’ everyday one-on-one learning experience.
And now, HSLDA is staffed by people with strong Christian commitments to serving others, based on our core values of freedom, family, and Christlikeness. We believe—and this is something that I hold very deeply— that the freedom to homeschool is for everyone and that we’re called to serve everyone.
So HSLDA helps expand the liberty to homeschool for anyone who wants to enjoy the freedom to homeschool their children. And that was part of the design from the beginning?
Yes, because Mike Farris was a Christian, and I was a Christian. While our faith was a strong reason why we homeschooled our own children, it’s also why we founded HSLDA to protect homeschool freedom for all parents.
While most of the folks who joined HSLDA early on were Christians and were educating their kids because they wanted to nurture them according to their faith, there were a variety of different perspectives in the early homeschool movement. Many secular and religious homeschoolers were strongly influenced by John Holt’s books on kids and learning and his Growing Without Schooling magazine. He advocated for something called “self-directed learning.”
But the side benefit is that by expanding the boundaries of freedom, state by state, everybody enjoys the benefit of the liberty that HSLDA contributed to throughout the years.
Speaking of “throughout the years,” what’s one of the most surprising differences between protecting homeschool freedom in 1983 and protecting homeschool freedom in 2022?
I wrote, probably literally, over a thousand letters in California during the early days of defending homeschooling—these letters were about 11 pages long because I was spelling out the constitutional right to homeschool and why it was legal under state law. Today, I can write one letter, citing the Jonathan L. court case in maybe three paragraphs, and we don’t hear from them again.
I wonder if there’s some way that we could add up all the letters that you’ve written just for the state of California.
It’d be in the thousands!
Speaking of California, something happened there in 2008 that drew nationwide attention: one of the big cases that HSLDA was involved with demonstrated how the very diverse homeschooling community could work together in a powerful way to defend homeschool freedom. Could you tell us about that?
Well, Jim, you can talk about that case a bit too, since you also worked on it: it was In Re Jonathan L. That case took us by surprise because we didn’t find out about it until an appellate court in California had ruled that homeschooling under the private school exemption was illegal. That was a shock, especially since California homeschoolers made up about 15% to 20% of homeschoolers nationwide at the time. So we immediately had to try and do something about the court’s ruling—that’s when I asked you to get involved.
Yeah. So just to give it a little historical context: the fight for homeschool freedom had pretty much swept the nation, to where it was legal everywhere in the country.
But in California, the education officials kept saying that homeschooling under the private school exemption was questionable. And they had written all these briefs just to describe why homeschooling was actually illegal in California—but before In Re Jonathan L, nobody paid attention to those briefs.
So In Re Jonathan L was a confidential dependency case. Nobody knew about this case. The kids at issue were young kids. There was no allegation that they were being abused. There was no allegation that the education was substandard. But the child protective services lawyers asked the court to rule that those younger children had to go to public school.
The juvenile court judge said, “No, I think the parents have a right to homeschool these kids.” So the CPS lawyers appealed that decision to the court of appeals in Los Angeles. And those lawyers rattled off all of those anti-homeschooling briefs that the state had been writing for years.
And the judges bought it. They bought it. And in a published decision on February 28, 2008—a date that will go down in history and infamy for me—they ruled that homeschooling in California was illegal, and had always been illegal.
So when the court opinion came down on February 28, we had 15 days to ask the court to reconsider its opinion. After a flurry of activity, on Friday of the next week, we had a full-fledged brief asking the court to reconsider its earlier opinion. About a week later, the same three judges who had said homeschooling was illegal granted our petition: they basically wiped out that early opinion. That gave us time to brief ourselves on the facts fully, and it gave others time to weigh in on what was now a very public case.
And weigh in they did: we had a very liberal left-wing law professor who joined a very conservative right-wing law professor in writing a brief in our favor. And there was one that was signed by the three largest homeschooling groups in California—probably the most influential of all the submitted briefs. The legal analysis was excellent, and they came at homeschooling from all these different perspectives. So you had this amazing collaboration of people coming at homeschooling from a host of different viewpoints, all coming together to say homeschooling in California should remain free!
For more information about California's history of homeschooling, as well as more about In Re Jonathan L, click here.
And after all was said and done, the court reversed their earlier opinion, stating that homeschooling in California could be done as part of the private-school system. And even further, they ruled that neither the state department of education nor any public schools had authority to regulate private schools in California—which meant, by extension, that they had no authority to regulate homeschooling.
Since then, there have been a couple of efforts to regulate homeschooling in California. But none have been successful because homeschoolers have risen up and approached their legislators and defeated these efforts, so homeschooling remains free in the state.
HSLDA and homeschool freedom have come a long way since that case, in California and in the other 49 states. Looking back, what are some of the biggest blessings that you’ve experienced in your work at HSLDA?
Probably the greatest joy that I’ve had is when I talk to our families and they say, “What HSLDA does for us gives us peace of mind. We know that because we’re members of HSLDA, if somebody shows up at our door, asking about our homeschool, we have you behind us, and we can call you, and you will take care of it.”
The second-biggest blessing has been just the opportunity to work here, among all our co-laborers—that’s what we call our employees. We’re all people laboring for a purpose, and that is to continue to perpetuate this liberty and make sure that the next generation and the generation after them have the same liberty that we have today—if not more.
And the reason that I’m encouraged to have you become my successor is because I know that you get it. The freedom issue is first place in your heart, and I know that.
Well, I’ve got some big shoes to fill. What do you see as one of the most important areas of homeschool freedom to keep an eye on in the future?
I think that the legislature is where our battles are really going to be fought in the future—in fact, they’re being fought there now.
The way opponents will try to change homeschooling—to take away the educational liberty that makes homeschooling effective—is not through the courts, because by and large, the courts agree that current laws support homeschool freedom. No, those who want to increase regulation and reduce homeschooling freedom, generally speaking, seek to change the laws.
That’s why we encourage our members to stay vigilant through initiatives like HSLDA Action and VoterVoice, and why we continue to work together with state organizations to closely monitor legislation in the states and in Congress.
I remember that, a while back, Arizona had this good homeschool law, but the state department of education introduced a bill in the house education committee to add some additional homeschooling regulations, and I went out to argue against it. HSLDA also sent out an alert to let Arizona homeschoolers know about the opportunity to attend the hearing, and we packed the hearing room so full that they didn’t even have enough room for us! Families and children spilled out into the hallway at 8:30 in the morning, but they didn’t hear our bill until about a little after noon. I think they were hoping that the kids would just tire out and we would leave. But these kids were very well-behaved, and we persevered.
Finally, the hearing for the homeschool-regulation bill came around, and the committee called on the department of education’s representative to give their pitch. After the department’s brief, five-minute presentation, one of the committee members held up a brochure and asked, “Have you seen this information about homeschoolers and how well they do?”
That brochure was a publication that HSLDA had prepared in advance, with research showing that homeschooling students were testing at the 80th percentile on average, compared to the 50th percentile for public school students. The department’s representative hadn’t seen the brochure, so the committee member read out some of the stats, then asked, “If homeschool students are doing this well compared to our public school students, then why aren’t we paying moms to teach our kids?”
The audience started clapping like crazy! He even added, “I also want to add some congratulations: this is the best-behaved audience I’ve had since I’ve been with the legislature.”
After that, the bill was quickly withdrawn.
This is what homeschoolers can accomplish together, but we have to be ready to meet the challenge when it arises in the state legislatures. That’s where we work closely with state organizations, local groups, our member families and donors, and other friends of homeschooling.
And if you could give a small piece of advice to the homeschool community today, what would it be?
We can strengthen homeschooling and create the best opportunities for our kids when we come together as a community to support one another, to learn together, and to defend homeschool freedom wherever necessary.
So I’d say—get involved with a live homeschool group! And check out local in-person conferences, because states are putting them on again—you’ll never regret it. You’ll be challenged in a good way, and you’ll be lifted up and encouraged.
Thanks for taking the time to talk, Mike. What’s next for you in life?
Well, I’ll still be on HSLDA’s board as President Emeritus; I’ll also be helping our development department via donor relations.
But most of all, I want to spend more time with my wife, Elizabeth. She’s just gone through a traumatic experience with COVID—we almost lost her. Through that experience, I was reminded that life is precious. We are not guaranteed another day. So we’re going to make the most out of life together.