The morning after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, the Federalist published an op-ed with the headline “Tragedies Like the Texas Shooting Make a Somber Case for Homeschooling.”
In the essay, the author immediately dismissed calls for gun control as petty and insincere, offering home-schooling as the true solution to keep children safe. “It is clear now from the long list of school shootings in recent years that families can’t trust government schools, in particular, to bring their children or teachers home safely at the end of the day,” the author wrote.
On first blush, the idea is somewhat understandable or, at least, relatable; it’s natural for parents to look for ways to protect their children. But then the author added, “The same institutions that punish students for ‘misgendering’ people and hide curriculum from parents are simply not equipped to safeguard your children from harm.”
And the “parental rights” political agenda emerged.
Many politically powerful conservatives promote home-schooling as a way to undercut or weaken the influence of public schools, and to shield their children from the liberalism they believe public schools foster. The Federalist was just one of a number of conservative voices calling for home-schooling in the wake of the Uvalde tragedy. (And there were plenty of news stories about parents who were considering it.)
But the groundwork of the movement was laid by conservative Christians who have been working for years to siphon power from public schools, pushing both home-schooling and parental rights legislation at the state and federal level. It’s just that finally, their ideas are becoming mainstream.
A Powerful Anti-Public School Tradition
Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education policy at Indiana University who has studied the American home-schooling movement, said it initially grew out of left-leaning countercultural ideals of the 1960s. Quickly, though, the movement was taken over by white evangelicals shaken by the seismic cultural changes of the era. In the early ’60s, the Supreme Court ruled school-sponsored prayer and Bible readings in the classroom unconstitutional. As many parents shuffled their kids off to Christian schools or other private institutions, others opted to take full control over their children’s religious education. “You started to see a push that good Christian parents needed to get their kids out of schools,” Lubienski said.
As home-schooling gained popularity, the movement won its political victories quickly. In the early ’80s, home-schooling was largely illegal. By the early ’90s, it was legal everywhere. It was also virtually unregulated.
A lot of that success can be traced back to the work of the Home School Legal Defense Association. A Christian organization founded in 1983, HSLDA helps sponsor home-school conventions, often with conservative political speakers, and connects home-school parents with one another for resources and advice. But more importantly, HSLDA defends the legal rights of home-school parents and takes on related political fights, pushing arguments about parental rights and religious freedom.
According to Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, a history of the past half-century of white evangelicalism in the United States, in 1994 a Democrat in Congress proposed an amendment to a bill that would have required home-schooling parents to be certified in the subjects they taught. The founder of HSLDA, Michael Farris, spoke passionately about this violation on James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio show, imploring listeners to lobby their representatives. Hundreds of thousands of phone calls later, Congress dropped the amendment and instead passed legislation offering greater protections for home-schooling.
HSLDA has stayed busy since, responding aggressively any time a state considers any regulation. According to Julie Anne Smith, a former home-schooling mother and blogger who writes about abuse at church and the Christian home-schooling movement, HSLDA keeps home-school parents in a state of anxiety with newsletters and other media portraying them as under attack. And according to James Dwyer, the author of Homeschooling: The History and Philosophy of a Controversial Practice, HSLDA has harnessed that anxiety quite skillfully.
“They’ve been extremely effective at lobbying and political action and persuading legislators that if they don’t support the HSLDA platform, they’re likely to lose elections and be harassed by members, barraged with emails, phone calls, etc.,” Dwyer said recently, over the phone.
The reality is “they don’t really need to convince any governments, and they’ve already got a very welcoming legal environment for home-schooling throughout the country,” Dwyer added. “There are a dozen states where you don’t even have to tell anyone that you’re home-schooling. Your child just doesn’t show up anywhere, and nobody cares.”
HSLDA claims to have more than 100,000 dues-paying member families, and according to experts and academics, they put those numbers to good use. “They would ask their members to lobby at state capitols, and whole families would go,” Smith said. “They taught them how to go to senators’ offices, and congressmen, and knock on their doors. Imagine all these families with boatloads of kids convening in state capitols. It would overwhelm the state capitols. And it would bring the news.”
HSLDA also dabbles more directly in youth activism; its Generation Joshua organization brings teenagers together to work on voter registration drives and knock on doors for conservative Republican campaigns. It also hosts summer camps and promises to teach students “about their country, where it comes from, why it’s free, and how to keep it that way.”
Pivot to Politics
Today, HSLDA’s founder, Michael Farris, is not working in education. He is the president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom—one of the most powerful conservative legal entities in the nation.
Best known for defending the Christian cake shop owners discriminating against gay customers in the 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case, ADF has been involved in a number of high-profile “religious freedom” cases; it was one of the key parties in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.
A lawyer and Baptist minister who previously worked as the Washington state director of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Farris became a celebrity in the evangelical world through his advocacy of home-schooling. In 1988 he founded Patrick Henry College, a deeply conservative school geared to home-schooled students that, according to Kobes Du Mez, has placed an unusually high number of White House interns. (One notable former PHC student: Madison Cawthorn.)
But in more recent years, Farris has grown even more ambitious, seizing the opportunity of the conservative-majority Supreme Court to file religious lawsuits designed to erode gay and transgender rights, pushing for anti-LGBTQ legislation and even, after initially scoffing at Trump’s candidacy, strategizing to keep Trump in power. (According to the New York Times, Farris “played a critical behind-the-scenes role” in drafting the lawsuit Republican state attorneys filed to overturn the 2020 presidential election.) Farris is also hoping, he told the Washington Post, to one day add a “parental-rights amendment to the Constitution.”
The HSLDA-ADF connection may be the most obvious tie between the home-school movement and the politically active Christian right, but it isn’t the only one. Ultraconservative schools like Bob Jones University put out curricula for home-schooled students that pushes a Christian nationalist worldview. During this year’s heated debates over critical race theory and the “grooming” of children, many of the people agitating for “parental rights” wound up discussing home-schooling as a way to save their children from the corruption of liberalism. And some right-wing voices directly offer home-schooling as a way to avoid raising “woke” children. (The most popular source of Christian home-schooling materials, Abeka Press, has been accused of pushing a deeply racist, revisionist version of American history.)
In a recent interview with Fox News, the actor Kirk Cameron, of ABC’s Growing Pains, said he supported home-schooling because of his disgust with liberalism. “You can take your pick,” he said, about his reasons. “Just go down the list. The things that are destroying the family, destroying the church, destroying love for our great country: critical race theory, teaching kids to pick their pronouns and decide whether they want to be a boy or a girl, the 1619 Project.”
Relatedly, on Monday and Tuesday, Cameron aired a documentary called Homeschool Awakening in movie theaters around the country. The film is meant to expose the “immoral” things being taught in public schools. “It’s sad to say they’re doing more for grooming, for sexual chaos, and the progressive left than any real educating about the things that most of us want to teach our kids,” Cameron told Fox News.
“They learn to reject a God,” he added, referring, ostensibly, to public school–educated children. “They learn to reject our country. And how did that happen? Well, that’s the kind of regret that we don’t want as parents.”
The Battle for American Society
There are many families who choose to home-school their children for reasons that have nothing to do with a conservative Christian political agenda. In 2020, for example, there was a notable increase in Black home-schooling, rising from 3.3 percent of households to 16.1 percent. Many families cited racism and impoverished and underperforming local schools.
And even among white evangelicals there are, of course, vast differences. As Lubienski noted, the majority of home-schooling is still done for religious reasons. But many who home-school for religious reasons have no fundamentalist or political leanings.
Still, it remains true that the Christian right is the movement’s greatest advocate. It doesn’t matter that home-schooling is virtually unregulated and families already have control over what their children learn. For many conservative Christians, it’s a cultural fight. The goal: preserve conservative Christian values, and ensure those values are the dominating cultural force of American society.
Which brings us back to school shootings. For the kinds of strategic players who see “government” schools as the enemy of a good Christian society, the cynical deployment of whatever sparks anxiety—gender politics, a pandemic, a mass shooting—provides opportunity to promote “family values” solutions to an even broader population of initiates.
“They adapt these different kinds of ideologies and grab hold of them,” Smith said. “Whatever’s new, they push it into their agenda.”
Correction, June 17, 2022: This piece originally misidentified Julie Anne Smith as Julie Annie Smith. It also erroneously implied that Smith is a current home-schooling mother.