“Our silent footnote.” It’s an intriguing title, suggested by my colleague, Grace Matte.

She’s a homeschool grad who has been working in HSLDA’s communication shop for 22 years.

Grace respectfully wonders if, in our zeal to advance homeschool freedom, we stuffed-shirt HSLDA lawyers (that’s my interpretation of her more tactful description) can sound just a teensy bit strident when we describe the dark machinations of ill-willed government bureaucrats who say they are just there to help.

(I don’t know why she would ever think such a thing, but I take her point.)

More importantly, Grace also suggests that we might focus too exclusively on the rights of parents when we report on cases, legislative battles, and policy issues.

Her thesis is that in all of our reports there is a silent footnote—namely, that we do what we do for the sake of the children. We don’t work to make homeschooling free for the benefit of the parents. To be sure, homeschool freedom helps to smooth parents’ path by making educational variety more accessible and removing the pressure and anxiety of complying with restrictive regulations. And homeschooling can be immensely rewarding for parents themselves. But we do what we do because we believe, on balance, that it is better for children when their parents have more liberty.

This bears repeating. And expanding.

Our belief—our worldview, if you will—leads us to conclude that a system where parents have wide latitude in raising their children, while not perfect, is far better for many more children than a system where the raising of children is highly regulated, restricted, and in some cases dictated by the state.

Plato, phone your office

Long before one hilarious politician’s ghostwriter titled a book It Takes a Village, Plato argued in the Republic that some children should be raised in common rather than by their parents for the good of society as a whole. The Republic proposed “[t]hat these [guardian class] women shall all be common to all the men, and that none shall cohabit with any privately; and that the children shall be common, and that no parent shall know its own offspring nor any child its parent.”1 This would produce an enlightened guardian class, which would rule as true philosopher kings.

Plato predicted that this proposal “would be right sharply debated.”2 He was right. That right sharp debate continues to this day. The ever-present policy question is: Where do we draw the line between family autonomy and state intrusion? For the good of the children? For the good of society?

While no one reasonably believes that the Republic’s proposal is ever likely to be implemented in full, one of its main components has been largely accepted in America. Plato’s ideal city-state had children raised and educated by society as a whole rather than by their parents.

Compulsory attendance laws have existed for around a hundred years. About 86 percent of children today are being educated by “society as a whole” in government-owned and -operated schools. Another 10 percent attend private schools. The rest are homeschooled.

The purpose of this article is not to denounce compulsory attendance laws (much) or to bash public schools (excessively). Rather, it is to explain why we stuffed-shirt lawyer-types at HSLDA have devoted our professional lives to building an island of liberty in a sea of compulsion.

The answer is found in Grace Matte’s silent footnote.

When gluten was legal and marijuana wasn’t

Lawyers did not invent homeschooling. That honor falls to others, even if we lawyers sometimes sound as though we have forgotten or never knew. There were hippies, various progressive education thinkers, parents of all kinds who felt their children would not thrive in the Educational-Industrial Complex (EIC), and Christians who concluded that the public schools of the late twentieth century would undermine their children’s religious upbringing.

There may have been a few progressive-hippy-Christians. And I’m pretty sure the alchemy that (home) birthed homeschooling required homemade bread baked from fresh home-ground Montana hard red winter wheat berries—back when gluten was still legal and marijuana wasn’t. Fifteen-passenger vans emerged from the primordial homeschooling ooze relatively early.

Urban homeschooling families as a population worthy of New York Magazine human-interest profiles evolved much later.3 But they are now a formidable—and crunchy—force in the movement, as evidenced by the organic lettuce in the recycled Whole Foods bags by the car seats in their Priuses. Parked outside MoMA.4 On a Tuesday morning. In October. (N.B.: There are about as many Whole Foods Markets in Manhattan as there are in the whole Commonwealth of Virginia.) 

Homeschooling families are now and have always been a diverse bunch. While their reasons and rhymes differ in the particulars, they share one overarching characteristic: they have all shunned the EIC in favor of a more artisanal, life-integrated approach to transmitting the three Rs to their kids.

A tale of two systems

At a high level of generality, it may be helpful to look at homeschooling as a “system” of education and compare it to the public school system.

In my less charitable moments, I may have referred to the far-flung archipelago of government-run schools as the gulag—though if asked directly, I will deny it. To utter the word out loud is to invite immediate condemnation.

We all know many dedicated, professional, really nice public school teachers and principals (my wife and my sister, for example).

But this is not about the people. It is about the system—and its roots in compulsion. So while the comparison may be exaggerated, my purpose is to draw a clear distinction. (And anyway, “Hyperbole is the BEST THING EVER!”)

Like the gulag, the EIC is compulsory. Sentences in the gulag are indeterminate, and while a public school sentence is only about 12 years and generally includes a daily life-release program, all-out escape is difficult. If you don’t believe me, ignore the compulsory attendance laws long enough and eventually men with guns will show up at your house and a stern-faced woman in a long black robe will bang a gavel on your head.

And like the gulag, the EIC is highly regimented. Bells, columns, rows, and lots of lines to and fro. There is little room for choice—choice of when, where, what, who, or how. If you live on the south side of Elm Street, your 6-year-old child must go to Robert E. Lee Elementary School, where she is assigned to Mrs. Smith’s classroom and will be taught from books selected by nameless bureaucrats in Capitol City—influenced by a host of other nameless bureaucrats who live inside a beltway in a distant land. Your neighbor’s 6-year-old child who lives on the north side of Elm Street, however, must go to Ulysses S. Grant Elementary School, where she will be taught by a different Mrs. Smith from the same books.

From the moment the first bell of kindergarten rings till 13 years later when your child shakes the hand of the principal on the stage at graduation, she will be marshaled here and there, often by people you will never know, who must follow the gobbledygook education fad de jure. They will never even meet her—but they will reshape her education based on a bewildering litany of famous and diverse (and sometimes contradictory) laws, such as:

  • The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) 
  • The Rehabilitation Act (1973) 
  • The Education of All Handicapped Children Act (1974) 
  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1990), which worked so well that Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act in 2004; IDEIA did little to improve education, but it did destroy IDEA’s above-average, deceptively descriptive acronym. 
  • The Improving America’s Schools Act (1994) 
  • The Goals 2000: Educate America Act (1994) 
  • The No Child Left Behind Act (2001) 
  • Last but by no means least, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (2009), which included the Race to the Top initiative, which in turn birthed the Common Core State Standards Initiative. It appears that the $4 billion dollars spent on Race to the Top grants may have done nothing to improve outcomes.5

"Dear Colleague"

One thing everyone apparently agrees on is that America’s public schools need more byzantine laws with unpronounceable acronyms. No, wait, that’s not right—America’s schools need improvement. And more and more, attempts to improve America’s schools come from the environs of Pennsylvania Avenue.

For example, when public bathrooms (and who may use them) recently became newsworthy, the D.C. acronym in charge of public-school bathrooms (USDOE) sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to every public school in America. The letter contained “significant guidance.”

In case you are confused about what “significant guidance” means, fear not, I am a professionally trained lawyer so let me clear it up for you. The Federal Register contains a gem called “Final Bulletin for Agency Good Guidance Practices,” which “establishes policies and procedures for the development, issuance, and use of significant guidance documents by Executive Branch departments and agencies.”

This bulletin adopted—I am not making this up—the definition in Executive Order 13422, which had just amended Executive Order 12866, to clarify the OMB’s (Office of Management and Budget) role in overseeing and coordinating significant guidance documents.

Near as I can tell after slogging through nine densely packed three-column pages in the Federal Register, a significant guidance document is a document that doesn’t just give run-of-the-mill guidance—it gives guidance that is SIGNIFICANT. Got that?

Which is to say that the EIC is increasingly run from the top down, by so-called experts who sit around thinking up significant guidance, to which we, the hoi polloi, must respond with, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”

On February 22, the DOE sent another “Dear Colleague” letter withdrawing the guidance in the previous letter, and reaffirming “the primary role of the states and local school districts in establishing educational policy.”6

Top down, centrally planned, monopolistic, expertly guided usually trends towards drab, sclerotic, bloated, expensive, bureaucratic uniformity.

To borrow from a distinguished man of American letters, foolish uniformity, like foolish consistency, is “the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”7

I am willing to concede for the sake of argument that all of this top-down, centrally planned, acronym-driven, significant guidance is well intended. But that begs the question, “What is intended?”

I submit for your consideration that the central planners in charge of the EIC view  the public school system as a factory. Input raw material in the form of a 5-year-old lump of malleable protoplasm. Thirteen years later, extract from the assembly line a somewhat less lumpy lump who is ready for four more years of pre-grad school. And eventually, we hope, the post-lump will enter the workforce and contribute to society.

In short, the EIC views the child as raw material, the working adult as the product, and itself as the means of production.

One from column A; one from column B

The homeschooling “system,” in contrast to the EIC, is predicated on the notion that education is the product and parents are the curators of their children’s education experience. [Hat tip to Kevin Williamson, whose book The End is Near And It’s Going to Be Awesome introduced me to the “product” idea.]

No diktats from on high about which books to use; no mandatory bells, columns, rows, or lines to and fro. Because homeschooling parents are free to choose who, what, when, where, and how, they may select from a lavish smorgasbord of delectable options to tailor education to each child’s needs, interests, desires, and aptitude.

Order à la carte, or a king-sized combo meal; order one from column A and one from column B, or bake the cake from scratch. You decide, your child thrives.

Mom may teach science at the kitchen table, while dad teaches literature in the family room. Grandma, who is a retired executive, may organize a co-op class about running a business in which the kids start a business, and Junior may take computer science at the community college. Want a regimented little school at home? No problem. Want to organize around unit studies and field trips? Have at it. Unschool, religious, classical, co-ops—the sky’s the limit.

Unlike the EIC, the homeschooling system has grown up organically as hundreds of thousands of parents make a myriad of choices in the best interest of their very own Hunter and Taylor. Innovation, voluntary collaboration, and entrepreneurial spirit fuel the engine of the homeschooling system.

And as homeschooling has become mainstream and more easily accessible, more and more parents choose to move from the EIC. According to the U.S. Department of Education the number of kids being homeschooled grew from 850,000 in 1999 to 1.8 million in 2012. As a percentage of school-age children, the homeschooling rate increased from 1.7 percent in 1999 to 3.4 percent in 2012.8

Glory be to God for dappled things

In the poem “Pied Beauty,” Gerard Manley Hopkins put his finger on the genius behind homeschooling. It begins with, “Glory be to God for dappled things.” Hopkins extolls the virtue found in differences, in quirkiness, and in “all things counter, original, spare, strange.”

Surfeit of choice, joyous diversity, and wacky, initiative-driven, creative, no-holds-barred endeavors spring from the very mind of God—and we see them reflected in the homeschooling education system.

This we believe, and for this God-given liberty we strive. And because God has given parents the responsibility of loving, nurturing, and educating their children in a way that honors each child’s uniqueness, we work to make and keep it possible for all parents to carry out this role—whether they believe in God themselves or not.

Pied Beauty

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Let the little children come to me

With this liberty, of course, comes great responsibility. Jesus valued children enormously. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these (Mark 10:14 NIV). And even more pointedly, “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42). So we likewise must value children enormously.

One of the most memorable revelations of my own parenting experience came one day when my oldest child was about 7 years old. I don’t recall just what he said or did, but I recall vividly the shocking realization that he is his own autonomous person and not a mere extension or appendage of me.

My experience with my 7-year-old son taught me that my role as father is not that of dictator; rather, I came to see my job as that of a shepherd. My children are not products. Like the still-small voice that first drew me and has since guided and sustained me, I have striven to nurture, challenge, and keep my children safe so they can hear God’s still-small voice guiding them. It is my job to prepare them for their life to come—both temporal and eternal—not to live it for them.

I believe God has placed to-die-for love in my heart for my children. For me, parenting is a truly awesome responsibility in the old sense of the word: inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear. I sometimes fail. I often fall short. But I nevertheless aspire to be a great dad. And homeschooling has been one vehicle for my wife Debbie and I to love our children as God would have us do.

They are not products of our little homeschooling factory. They are themselves. We honor God by nurturing them in their uniqueness and by faithfully curating their education.

We stuffed-shirt lawyer-types at HSLDA don’t ask you to share our worldview or its religious underpinnings to receive our help. If you are a parent of a child, we want you to enjoy the same liberty we want for ourselves.

For the sake of your children. That’s always been our heart, even if it has sometimes been buried in a silent footnote.

Afterword by Jim

Freedom: Better for our kids than vouchers

I wrote this cover story last fall, before the presidential election, and before the legislative season began in most states. It was scheduled to appear in an earlier issue of the Court Report but was bumped when our founder, Michael Farris, announced he was leaving HSLDA to become the new President, CEO, and General Counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom.

Since then, Republicans gained control of the White House and both houses in Congress.

Soon after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, a bill, H.R. 610, was introduced with the best of intentions by friends of homeschooling in the House. It proposes to require the states to give vouchers to homeschoolers to pay for educational expenses.

And Texas has introduced so-called education savings accounts—a classic misnomer because no one is actually saving money in an account. These so-called “ESAs” are actually vouchers. Tax money is assigned to each child and the parents get a debit card to use for education expenses.

While my cover story was not written with fake “ESA” vouchers in mind, it explains the principles that lead us to oppose them.

In the short term, fake “ESA” vouchers would certainly encourage some undecided families to homeschool, provide relief for some families facing special financial challenges, and perhaps provide public schools with meaningful and healthy competition.

In the long run, however, if some homeschooling families accept taxpayer money, thus becoming beholden to and dependent upon the government, we believe it could change the public’s perception of all homeschoolers in such a way as to make it much more difficult to advance the cause of homeschool freedom—or even protect what we have worked so hard to achieve.

Even more fundamentally, we believe that homeschooling freedom is a product of liberty-minded people working together to achieve an unparalleled event in the history of our nation. Homeschooling has succeeded as a movement in part by being different. Unlike typical constituencies asking for our piece of the public-money pie, we have simply asked the government to leave us alone. This has fostered one of the most dynamic social movements of our lifetime.

The spirit of self-reliance at the heart of private homeschooling has led to a vibrant social network of groups, charities, businesses, and ministries who depend on each other—not on the government. Homeschooling has been such a successful movement because we built it ourselves.

We believe that if private homeschoolers begin routinely taking tax dollars to pay for homeschooling expenses, it will enervate the movement, lead to more squabbles between families and the state, and result in more scrutiny, oversight, and control—top-down bureaucracy which will end up burning out homeschooling parents and restricting learning opportunities for their children.

We recognize that some homeschooling families struggle financially. That is why HSLDA Compassion exists—to help single parents, disaster victims, military families, and others homeschool their children through hard times.

We urge you to join with us to find private solutions to the problems our fellow homeschoolers face—and to reject the camel’s nose before he gets all the way into our tent.