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Homeschooling Is Outgrowing Far-Right, Christian Fundamentalism

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

Over the course of the last several years, homeschooling has surged across the U.S.

According to a study by The Washington Post, in states where data was available, homeschool students rose by 51 percent between 2017 and 2023. By comparison, enrollment in private schools rose by only 7 percent.

As a homeschool alum, these statistics brought me mixed feelings. I had a beautiful, generous, enriching experience being homeschooled from fifth through 12th grade, but I know others who had the complete opposite experience. I fear that many Americans are beginning to homeschool without knowing that Far-Right, fundamentalist Christians lead most of the networks that offer resources to homeschooling families.

Thankfully, they don’t lead all such networks. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education is one organization working toward a better, inclusive future for homeschool students. They work to gather data, advocate for child-centered policy, and document the stories of homeschool alumni. I spoke with Jessica Dulaney, communications director for CRHE and a homeschool alum, to talk about the religious past (and present) of homeschooling, the policies CRHE supports, and the future of homeschooling in the United States.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: How did you come to work on homeschooling policy?

Jessica Dulaney, Coalition for Responsible Home Education: I was homeschooled K-12. It was all I knew. I didn’t really have a good way to compare my experiences with those people who were not homeschooled. In many ways, I was incredibly fortunate homeschooled child. I had access to tons of books; I had access to tons of school supplies and resources; I was able to get great test grades, go off to college, get my degree, and start my career. Once I reached college and had the opportunity to more regularly interact with folks from different backgrounds, I began to see the deficits in my own homeschool experience and also those of other homeschooled children that I knew.

I began to see more clearly how homeschooling can sometimes make it harder for children to access things like health care, express their identities, experience some key milestones of growing up, and have balanced relationships between friendships and family members. The tipping point for me was 2018 when [the adoptive parents of] six Black children from Texas homeschooled them and ended up committing a murder-suicide with them.

(The Hart family’s SUV was driven off a cliff in Northern California in 2018. The story became national news, with some saying it represented the failures of the child welfare system and homeschooling laws.)

It completely broke the hearts of so many people, me included. I realized that, hey, these children were homeschooled, and I could very clearly see how homeschooling was a factor: Their parents took advantage of the fact that homeschool laws are so lax to hide their children from community, to deny their children access to resources and people who could have seen something and helped them. I was very angry, and I knew I had to do something about it. I — a homeschool alum who’s been fortunate — need to give back to my community. A random Google search took me to CRHE’s website, and I have been at work for them ever since. It’s been an incredible experience.

How does homeschooling in the U.S. intersect with religion?

Homeschooling in the U.S. was initially a more diverse movement. It represented a broad ideological spectrum when it first kicked off in the 1970s. There was almost a liberal-leaning, educational-reform streak to it. There were a lot of discussions happening about how to empower a child to learn outside of the traditional classroom environment. At that point, educating children at home was legal in every state, but there were varying laws in each of those states. Some states at that time required parents to have teaching licenses to homeschool — can you imagine that? In the 1980s, the direction of the homeschool movement changed, and a new wave of individuals entered it — Far-Right, fundamentalist Christians — and they were looking to wage a culture war.

[Far-Right, fundamentalist Christians had suffered] a string of legal defeats in the ’60s and ’70s regarding Civil Rights laws. After suffering so many losses, they were looking for a win. What they considered to be a win was being able to limit their child’s access to information, resources, or anything that didn’t align with their specific viewpoints. So, they went all-in on homeschooling as the best way to train up a child and shield them from the “godlessness of the public school system.”

That was spearheaded by an organization called the Home School Legal Defense Association, or the HSLDA. They got parents to jump on-board their train by weaponizing fear. They wanted parents to be afraid of the government hurting [or] indoctrinating their kids. And fear is a really powerful motivator: Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it motivated thousands of parents to jump on-board this movement and push for their state legislators to deregulate homeschooling.

[Homeschooling] was one part of this broader vision from Far-Right leaders to set up a generation of children, to launch them into government, education, and entertainment, to push very Far-Right, fundamentalist message.

And they saw a lot of success during this timeframe. By the time we reached the 1990s, this group had successfully deregulated homeschooling in all 50 states. And they are still in the process of chipping away at the few state level protections remaining for homeschool children. To this day there’s been very little study on homeschooling, just because it’s very hard to study something that is so deregulated. [Far-Right] ideology is predominant within homeschooling communities. Curriculum like Abeka or Bob Jones or Sonlight.

I’d just spell out, the leaders referred to this as the “Joshua Generation,” as if they were Moses leaving the Egypt of “godless public schools,” so their children could be the Joshuas heading into the “Promised Land” of making the U.S. a Christian nation.

In the past 10 or so years, we have seen some diversification of homeschooling. It’s grown since the 2010s and since the 2020s in the wake of the pandemic. What we’re noticing at CRHE is more people are homeschooling for pragmatic reasons rather than religious or ideological reasons: their child is not being served well by the public school system, their child is part of the LGBTQ+ community and they’re not being treated well, or they have a disability and the school does not have adequate services.

We’re at a really interesting moment in the history of homeschooling. The old guard is still there, absolutely dominating the conversation and the landscape of what homeschooling looks like, but there is this wave of folks doing it for other reasons.

Many parents are working to homeschool their children with their child’s best interest in mind. But they need to understand that homeschool law and culture were built by people who did not have children’s best interest at heart.

From a policy side, what’s necessary to ensure the pragmatic reasons are supported?

Homeschooling is very difficult. It requires a massive amount of time, energy, and honestly a lot of reflection to be cognizant of your own limitations as a parent. [You are] one individual trying to take on the responsibilities normally handled by the entire staff of a school.

At CRHE, we advocate for parents to not make this decision lightly and to regularly reassess why they’re homeschooling and whether or not is the best fit for their family. We encourage parents to work closely with their children by having frank conversations and asking, “Are you enjoying this? Is this working for you? What can we do to improve the situation?” We advocate very heavily for children to make as many of those age-appropriate decisions as possible.

[Homeschooling is] absolutely not a fit for everyone, and it’s not necessarily a fit for everyone all the time. It may be fine to homeschool your child in the fifth grade because of a specific thing that’s going on with your community or family, but then when it’s time for sixth grade, maybe it’s time for them to go to a different environment. Maybe you homeschool when [your child] is in elementary school and then let them continue on in public school for [a couple years] in high school.

It’s not wise to make a blanket statement and say: “Homeschooling is never the appropriate choice.” It is the appropriate choice in some circumstances, but it’s something that families need to be willing to reevaluate.

If homeschooling is largely deregulated now, what regulations do we need? And what research do we need to better understand homeschooling?

There is a serious need for additional research and additional structures to ensure that homeschool children have the best possible outcome. The few regulations that are in place are being chipped away as we speak, and no state has adequate protections to ensure that a homeschooled child has a right to being safe in their own home and have an education.

Right now, 14 states have no subject matter requirements. If a homeschooling parent doesn’t want to teach their child math, science, history, or any other subject, what they’re doing is perfectly legal. They don’t have to do it. There is a lack of guaranteed access to many types of child welfare resources for homeschool children. A child in public school has guaranteed access to certain types of health care services — free food, [mental health services], and other community resources. During the 2021 to 2022 school year, 96 percent of U.S. public schools offered some level of mental health services to their students. There’s no equivalent for homeschool children.

Forty-eight states allow convicted child molesters and sex offenders to homeschool without any restrictions — yes, 48 states. At CRHE, we see this as a problem. We think most people would see this as a problem if they were aware of it.

We have a database called Homeschooling’s Invisible Children, where we catalog cases of child abuse [and] neglect that have been publicly reported within homeschool settings. We’re able to see how a lack of policies that protect homeschool children demonstrably results in harm.

We believe that homeschool children should have to learn the same subjects that the public-school students learn in their state. We believe that homeschool children should have guaranteed access to mandatory reporters who can speak with the child and families to identify if there’s a problem. Homeschool children should have access to sports and extracurricular activities through their public school system, so they can enjoy those enrichment experiences and have access to community.

Let me follow up on a few of those points. I can imagine a parent in Oklahoma with an LGBTQ+ child who doesn’t feel safe in a public school — teachers who refuse to use their pronouns or name — and if that kid was homeschooled but had to access the same, [anti-LGBTQ+] mental health resources as public school kid, wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of homeschooling?

When we’re talking about access to mental health care services for homeschool children, we’re talking about situations in which the parent may not have the wherewithal to recognize this is something they need to offer to their child. Or situations in which a parent removes their child because they don’t want their child to access mental health care.

Overall, we need better access to mental health care for all children. But for homeschool students, they don’t have the ability to just walk down the hallway and go to a counselor’s office the way a child in public school can. They don’t have a teacher who can ask, “Do you have what you need? Do you need to talk to someone?”

I think what I’m pressing at here is the complicated nature of policymaking. I can imagine a family homeschooling in the South because they don’t want their child to learn “Lost Cause” narratives, and if the law mandates the child learn history the same as public schools, what happens?

We’re not advocating for specific curriculum to be required to be used. What we’re saying is, if a kid in public school in Texas is learning math, then a child who’s homeschooled in Texas should also be learning math. We’re not saying you need to use this specific math book or teach the math books in this specific order. But the child needs to be learning math.

The reason why we advocate for policies like this is because we have worked with alumni who have told us that their parents decided not to teach them a specific subject. There’s a problem within certain homeschool communities in which they treat women and girls as if they don’t need to learn math or science because those aren’t appropriate subjects for a girl to learn, because a woman should not have those careers.

If they’re in one of those 14 states in which there’s no subject matter requirements, they can choose to not teach their daughters math, science, etc., and it’s not illegal.

We’re advocating for policies that ensure children like those don’t get left behind.

I guess I’m curious about how those policies would qualify what counts as math and science courses, and so on.

Assessment is a whole ’nother ballgame. Even the states that have policies on the books that require parents to teach these specific subjects to the children, they don’t have an assessment mechanism. There’s no one actually going back to see a report card or workbooks or tests to see that these subjects were actually taught. That’s something we’re advocating for as well. We need to be able to show that these kids did this work. It’s not enough to just simply have the subject matter requirement. You also need to be able to follow up and see that it actually took place.

And this brings us back to what we were talking about at the very start, which is how little we know about homeschooling.

Yeah, if you ask any homeschooling advocacy group, they’ll tell you data shows homeschoolers have flying colors and better results in college. But if you look closer at those studies, they aren’t that rigorous. There’s very little that we can definitively say about homeschooling’s outcomes. Which is why alumni testimony is so important.

What does homeschooling look like in a responsible manner? What’s the future of homeschooling CRHE envisions?

Oh my gosh, I love this question! The future of homeschooling has to be child centered. Homeschooling, when done properly, is going to prioritize the needs, rights, and interests of children first and foremost.

To get there, we’re going to have to see widespread adoption of practices and policies, and an entire cultural shift that focuses on what children actually need.

CRHE has created and launched a document that we call the Bill of Rights for Homeschooled Children — it’s an aspirational vision breaking down what homeschooling can look like when it’s done in a way that prioritizes children’s rights.

We patterned that after the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was done brilliantly. The U.S. is like one of two countries that has not ratified it yet. Which, spoiler alert, it’s [because of many of] the same people who deregulated homeschooling.

But the Bill of Rights for Homeschooled Children was based off what homeschool alumni have personally told us that they experienced and that we ourselves experienced. It was crafted with the mentality in mind of: “If we could go back to our childhoods, what would we want to see? What would we and our friends want to experience? What do we want for the next generation of homeschooling children?”

Homeschooling is a tool in the hands of parents, caregivers, and families who are genuinely working in their child’s best interest. It can be incredibly beneficial for a child. But when homeschool laws are exploited by parents and caregivers who do not have their children’s best interest at heart, the consequences can be absolutely devastating.

I want people to know that homeschool children are out there. We are a relatively small percentage of the number of children who are being educated K-12 in the U.S., but our voices matter, our stories matter, and our rights matter.

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