An Intro from President Emeritus Mike Smith
Why did HSLDA’s board choose Jim as our next president?
I can tell you why: I’ve worked with him for 20 years. I know Jim as a friend, as a person who has worked shoulder-to-shoulder with us to advance freedom. Jim has character, and his character comes from his deep, committed faith.
And it doesn’t hurt that he’s smart. It doesn’t hurt that he loves the law. It doesn’t hurt that he loves to research.
Jim loves liberty. He loves homeschooling. He’s respected by the state leadership. They love him. He’s respected and loved by our co-laborers. Jim will see great success. He’s the man for this season.
Jim, you recently assumed your role as president of HSLDA. I want our members and friends to get to know you better. Will you tell us how you got started in home education?
Well, that’s an easy question for me to answer. When I got engaged to my wife, Debbie, she said, “We’re going to homeschool.”
Now, even though I had never actually heard of homeschooling, I figured out from context what it was. It felt, you know, OK. And I would have agreed to any price to continue with the engagement to get married. As a state-certified teacher, Debbie already had experience teaching children. We were both Christians, and Debbie knew that for her kids, she wanted to be able to train them in the Christian faith, and she didn’t want to put them in the public schools. So that’s when I was first exposed to homeschooling.
We got married, and two years later our first child came along. As our next children were born through the following few years, the rubber really started to hit the road. She said, “You remember that thing I said about homeschooling?”
I said “Kind of . . . did you mean it?”
She did. I’m the kind of guy that, before I undertake almost anything, I want to learn about it. So, I ordered a book, the only book that I could find on homeschooling: Homeschooling for Excellence by David and Micki Colfax. The Colfaxes were a homeschooling family in California who moved into the country and built their own homestead. Their kids started learning math by building a chicken coop and counting eggs and chickens and that sort of thing. And, they had all these adopted kids from different countries that grew up in that homeschooling environment and then went on to do great things in their adult lives.
I was impressed. So I told Debbie, “Ok, we can give this a shot.”
Just that book was enough to get you to buy into homeschooling?
Well, there were a couple more things: most notably, we knew a homeschooling family personally—in fact, the only one we knew. We were in a Bible study with the Garber family, and I met their oldest daughter, Leah, when she was 7 years old. (She now works for HSLDA.) When it was time for us to homeschool our oldest child, Luke, Leah was around 11.
Just knowing Leah, her siblings, and their family was a real encouragement. We were able to see how homeschooling worked, and we saw how loving and intentional their family was. That was really influential in our decision to homeschool.
Something else happened early on that really sold me on homeschooling. When Luke was about 4 years old, Debbie signed us up for an educational seminar geared toward homeschooling parents, called “The Writing Road to Reading” . . . and I loved it.
During this time, I got called out to active duty in the Navy—I had been in the Reserves. When I came back after four months, Luke had already started with this Writing Road to Reading. By that time, my wife was really sold on homeschooling, and I was as well.
Let’s switch gears now. How did you become a lawyer?
Alright, so to back up a bit: when Debbie and I got married, I was framing houses for a living. I had been a carpenter for three-and-a-half years. But then Luke was born.
I liked what I was doing, but it wasn’t paying the bills anymore. The housing market was in recession, and I had to find other work to support the family.
I started applying for any job in our town that I came upon, and the first job offer came from our local jail, for a position as a corrections officer. After a little while, I went from being a corrections officer to being a parole and probation officer, and it seemed like that was going to be my career in our little town.
Our second and third sons were born during that time, then I got recalled to active duty in the Navy and went over to the Persian Gulf. And somehow—I mean, it’s hard to explain—but somehow, that experience made me feel like I should expand my horizons and maybe think about doing something different than being a parole and probation officer.
About that time, I became aware of Home School Legal Defense Association and the fight for homeschool freedom. By the time Debbie and I started homeschooling in Oregon, other homeschool pioneers had paved the way and homeschooling was firmly established as legal in our state, but then I started reading about what other school districts and legislatures were doing to homeschool families around the country. We used to get this magazine that some people may remember—the Teaching Home magazine—and my wife and I would fight over who got to read it first. I would generally win because the only part I wanted to read were the little legal and legislative news snippets from HSLDA about the different states, while she wanted to read the long articles about how to homeschool. Reading those snippets ignited a passion in me, and it felt like the Lord was saying to me that I should consider changing careers.
So when you started thinking about becoming a lawyer, you had already started thinking about working at HSLDA?
So then you went to Regent University School of Law and excelled. And then you applied to HSLDA?
Yes. So when I was still a parole and probation officer, I had already applied to and been accepted into law school, but the start of classes was still several months away. I wrote a letter to Mike Farris in 1992 and said, “I got great news for you Mike, the Lord has called me to quit my job. In three-and-a-half years, I’ll graduate from law school. And then, I’ll come help you guys out.”
He wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as I was. He basically said, “Yeah, great. Don’t quit your day job.” There wasn’t a lot of room for new lawyers, but I disregarded that advice, went to law school, and did well. When I graduated, I got a job clerking for a judge back in Oregon.
One year into that job, I wrote to Mike Farris again and said, “Last time I wrote, you said ‘You shouldn’t do this,’ but I went ahead and did it anyway, and I finished law school. I’m halfway through my judicial clerkship. A year from now, I’ll be ready to come work for you.”
I got a letter back from this guy named Mike Smith, who said, “I’m really proud of you for doing a good job in law school.”
Did I encourage you?
That part was very encouraging. However, you also said that because of the nature of HSLDA’s work, you didn’t hire people who didn’t have lawyering experience.
So, I went ahead and got a different job. But then, things eventually circled back to our “homeschool example family,” the Garbers, who we had met in Oregon.
After I went off to law school in Virginia, they ended up moving to another part of Virginia. We stayed friends throughout my judicial clerkship and while I was working at my first job post–law school. One summer, they came to visit and mentioned they went to church with Mike Farris. I told them about my previous correspondence with Farris and Smith, and that I’d still like to work for HSLDA someday.
“But,” I said, “they keep telling me no, and I have this job now.”
Three months later, I got a call from Leah’s dad, Jon Garber. He told me, “I was at church this morning with Mike Farris. And he said they had a lawyer quit. They’re looking for a guy who knows how to do litigation.”
Mike Farris called me. I emailed him my resume. You guys interviewed me in 2001. And the rest is history.
So, you’ve been here since 2001. You’ve been doing litigation, among other things.
You’ve had a lot of cases with HSLDA over your time here: we’ve talked about a seminal case for us, In re Jonathan L. Are there other cases that were critical to the issue of freedom to homeschool?
One of the areas of law that we work in (and frequently get questioned about) is the Fourth Amendment.
People ask, “Why does HSLDA care about the Fourth Amendment?” Well, weirdly, homeschoolers tend to homeschool in their homes.
4th Amendment to the U.S. Constititution (Adopted in 1791)
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
What HSLDA discovered long before I came on staff, was that—in the early days especially—homeschooling was thought to be illegal or, worse, a way to mistreat children. Folks from Child Protective Services frequently got called just because kids were home from school.
We discovered that their approach to investigation was off: it was disrespectful to the Fourth Amendment, which gives people the right to be secure in their own homes. And so, a big part of our efforts over the years has been litigating Fourth Amendment protections. There’s a whole line of cases that I’ve worked on over the years, setting statewide precedents that homeschooling families have a right to homeschool in their own residences. Although commonly perceived as a side issue to homeschooling, it’s a really important one because these rights can be eroded so easily. And back then, no one else really had the ability of litigate those kinds of cases for homeschoolers.
Just last year, a case came up in Texas: this homeschooling family had a baby, and they put the baby to sleep in the spacious walk-in closet that they had converted into a nursery. (See Berryman, here.) Someone anonymously reported to CPS that the baby cried excessively that day. Now, as a parent who has raised seven babies to adulthood—and knows they have good days and bad days—that didn’t really sound all that alarming to me. However, the CPS investigator went out to the house and demanded entrance to the home to look around, make sure everybody had a place to sleep, and interview all the kids apart from the parents. The mom brought the baby to the front door so the investigator could visually verify that the child was healthy and happy, but she said no to the investigator’s demands.
So, the investigator got a court order. Well, HSLDA knows how to put a halt to that sort of thing. We were able to put together a writ of mandamus, basically asking the court to temporarily halt the investigation, pending further information. Once granted, we had time to get the court to pause and recognize that, “Wait a minute, those allegations are not enough to overcome the right of parents to be secure in their own homes.” Not many law firms in the country would be able to do that.
Especially in cases like these, the reason you’re such a good lawyer is because you attempt to anticipate the other side. Many good lawyers only advocate for their side, and they really struggle to step into the other side’s shoes.
You go through the statute, through the law, through the cases. You do your deep research to try to figure out what arguments are against us. And then, you address them. From a litigation perspective, you’re very successful because you’re smart and hardworking, and you follow that rubric every time a case comes before you—and that routine gives direction to our co-laborers.
HSLDA has an entire litigation department that you’ve led for many years. When there aren’t any Fourth Amendment cases on the docket, what other things do you handle?
As you know, many states have laws regulating homeschooling, containing requirements that homeschoolers are supposed to follow. And, to enforce those laws, most of those states have vast bureaucracies, either in the public schools or in the state education departments. Every day, we face issues related to these laws. Maybe it’s just one school district, or maybe it’s a whole state department of education trying to assert more authority over homeschoolers than what the law actually allows. It’s a very distressing thing for homeschooling families to get a letter from a school district saying, “If you don’t do this, we’re going prosecute you.” And unfortunately, that happens a fair amount.
A recent example is a case that we had here in Virginia. (See Kirk and Kristin Sosebee, here.) A local school district thought that the state homeschooling law was inadequate. So, they added their own local rules on top of the state homeschooling law. And so, when a brand-new homeschooling family turned in everything that the state required, the local school district threatened to prosecute them if they didn’t follow the extra local requirements. On behalf of that homeschooling family, HSLDA sued the school district and took it all the way to the Supreme Court of Virginia.
The court agreed with us: school districts have to follow the state’s homeschooling law, just like homeschoolers have to follow the state’s homeschooling law. They can’t make it up as they go.
That’s just one example of those kind of very frequent situations.
What is the greatest joy or blessing that motivates you to come to work every day?
The fact that I get to talk to families who are busy raising their kids is beautiful. Nobody tells parents what they need to do to raise their kids. Parents loving their kids already know what they need to do. They want the best for their kids, and that’s what homeschooling really represents.
No state bureaucrat says you must create a homeschool sports league, for example. There are state organizations and local organizations that are devoted to different aspects of homeschool freedom, like helping create sports leagues and co-ops, and we get to work with all of them in a meaningful way. These are parents and communities coming together to do what is best for their kids.
We have people who join us who firmly believe that they’ll never need our legal services. But, they’re joining to support other homeschoolers who may get in trouble, or to perpetuate homeschool freedom. They believe in it, and they want to make sure homeschooling’s here for their kids and grandkids. They see HSLDA as one of the key organizations for that purpose. It’s a great thing.
We’ve talked to a lot of people who have never personally needed any help that we have to offer, but they’re so happy to be a part of what we do to make homeschooling safe for everyone else. There’s just an overwhelming sense of commitment to this notion that homeschooling is a good thing for the country. And to me, that feels like a tremendous contribution.