After the mass shooting at a Nashville elementary school this week, Tennessee Rep. Tim Burchett was asked how Congress should respond to the violence. And Burchett was remarkably forthright.
“It’s a horrible, horrible situation,” he said. “And we’re not gonna fix it.”
This sentence was quickly splashed across headlines. A video of Burchett’s remarks posted on Twitter has already drawn some 23 million views. Celebrities, including actor Ben Stiller and late-night host Stephen Colbert, weighed in to express their horror. “God, they really aren’t even hiding it now,” said anti-gun activist and Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg.
Burchett had explained his position—one that he undoubtedly shares with a number of Republicans—as “criminals are going to be criminals,” and that there was nothing good the government could do because the problem was simply a matter of human evil.
But there was another part of the interview that revealed the specific place this belief was coming from. When asked what should be done to protect children like his own daughter, Burchett replied, “Well, we home-school her.”
The proposal of home-schooling as a solution for school shootings is not a new argument. And it mirrors some conservative responses to other recent school shootings.
For example, after the May 2022 shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas, the Federalist published an op-ed with the headline “Tragedies Like the Texas Shooting Make a Somber Case for Homeschooling.”*
“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 of the op-ed wrote. “The same institutions that punish students for ‘misgendering’ people and hide curriculum from parents are simply not equipped to safeguard your children from harm.”
Home-schooling in general became much more popular because of the COVID pandemic. And according to home-schooling organizations, school shootings typically lead to spikes in phone calls from concerned parents wanting to learn more.
But as is clear in the Federalist op-ed, there is also an increasingly powerful force in American politics that is pushing home-schooling as the cure to any and all school problems: the parental rights movement.
The modern “parental rights” movement was built on the work of conservative Christians who bemoaned changes in public schooling that occurred in the 1960s—namely that the Supreme Court ruled that school-sponsored prayer and Bible readings in the classroom were unconstitutional. Those Christians pushed white evangelicals to pull their children out of schools to give them a more “Christian” education. The Home School Legal Defense Association, a Christian organization, campaigned during the 1980s to popularize and legalize home-schooling—and it quickly won political victories: home-schooling went from being largely illegal to being legal everywhere by the early 1990s. The HSLDA still defends the legal rights of home-school parents and takes on related political fights, promoting arguments about parental rights and religious freedom.
Today, you can hear echoes of HSLDA campaigns in arguments against LGBTQ-affirming teachers or about schools teaching about racism. “Home-school your kids” is a common refrain.
After the Uvalde mass shooting, I spoke with Julie Anne Smith, a former home-schooling mother and blogger who writes about the Christian home-schooling movement. She pointed out that it has a tradition of latching onto whatever the latest source of anxiety is to promote “family values” solutions, i.e., home-schooling.
“They adapt these different kinds of ideologies and grab hold of them,” Smith said. “Whatever’s new, they push it into their agenda.”
Burchett, like many gun-ownership advocates, clearly shares some commonality with those strategic players who see “government” schools as the enemy of a healthy society. The problem, as he sees it, is the secularization of society.
“I think you’ve got to change people’s hearts,” he said in the same interview that went viral. “You know, as a Christian, as we talk about in the church—and I’ve said this many times—I think we really need a revival in this country.”
Correction, March 30, 2022: This piece originally misstated that the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, was in June. It was in May 2022.