Who Stole Homeschooling?

By Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff

When I began homeschooling my children in 1983, homeschooling was illegal in Washington state and in most of the United States. Homeschoolers were being pursued and sometimes arrested and tried by civil authorities intent on enforcing compulsory attendance and truancy laws. There weren't many resources available to new homeschoolers at the time, but I was determined, and I made it my business to find the sources that were available, because I knew I needed all the help I could get.

Homeschool Picnic

My research at the time revealed some good books on homeschooling written by Dr. Raymond and Dorothy Moore, who also published a newsletter and offered curriculum and educational services to homeschooling families, books and a newsletter published by John Holt and his organization, Growing Without Schooling, and Home Education Magazine, published by Mark and Helen Hegener. Each of these individuals and organizations had been around for some years, since the mid- or late 70s, and each offered additional resources and support of various kinds for homeschooling families. Some had homeschooled, and some had been homeschooled.

All of these folks seemed to be openly supportive of one another. If you contacted the Hegeners at Home Education Magazine, they'd also refer you to the Moores and Growing Without Schooling, and the same was true of the Moores and the folks at GWS. They advertised one another's publications and openly advocated for one another. They seemed to find their unity first and foremost in the children - in their common interest in, knowledge of, beliefs about, and concern for what best served children's educational needs. They did not seem to hold common religious beliefs.

The Moores were devout Christians of the Seventh Day Adventist denomination, while the Hegeners and John Holt did not openly express any religious preference or perspective. All, however, were openly and vocally supportive and affirming of the rights of all homeschooling families not only to educate their own children as they saw fit, but to act and live according to their individual consciences, religious beliefs and tenets.

In the years prior to 1983-84, few centralized state homeschooling organizations existed, most were in the formative stages. In fact, many of the state organizations were formed initially for the purpose of working for homeschooler-friendly legislation, then continued on as support organizations only after favorable legislation had been passed.

In 1983-85, a number of organizations were simultaneously launched nationally by conservative Christians interested in homeschooling. These new Christian organizations had a focus which diverged markedly from the focus of most of the homeschooling organizations and leaders which preceded them. They often emphasized, the rights and obligations of parents, as opposed to the education or good of children, the importance of separation from the "ungodly," and the duty of parents to control their children and to keep them from undesirable companions. They often urged that homeschoolers use only Christian curriculum and avoid association with nonchristian homeschoolers.

While they were aggressive in marketing and promoting their own and one another's publications, seminars and services nationally and on the state level, they rarely, if ever, made mention of long time homeschooling leaders and organizations which had preceded them, some of which were Christian, but which did not share their own perspectives or philosophies. Because these new organizations were Christian, they often gained access to churches and church members by presenting Christian conferences and seminars which were advertised by local churches, and they then presented homeschooling as a new Christian option for Christian families without making mention of the work of nonchristian homeschooling pioneers.

There were a lot of actions taken in the late '80s and early '90s by such individuals and organizations which forever changed the face of homeschooling. Newly-organized and sometimes struggling state homeschooling organizations were approached by publications which offered such services as including the state organizations' newsletters as inserts in national publications. When, later down the line, decisions were made to drop the inserts of state groups which refused to become exclusively Christian, homeschoolers in some states saw their newsletter inserts omitted, then replaced with the inserts of new state organizations whose officers would agree to sign statements of faith.

There was no public announcement of this change in policy, and homeschooling subscribers in the individual states affected were left in the dark and wondering what had happened. The new state group's inserts were simply inserted in the slot reserved for the news of the old state group, and with no mention of what had happened to the old state group or whether it even existed any longer. Inquiries were met with a silence which was to become predictable and customary, with folks doing their best to figure out what might have happened.

Some visible leaders then began to publish press releases and make statements to the media on behalf of the entire homeschooling community, even though no one really knew, exactly -- and no one knows today, who belongs to that community, how many Americans actually homeschooled, or what the composition of the homeschooling community might really be, let alone what position it might take on various issues. There was no way, really, to refute public statements which were made and there was no way that they could credibly be affirmed, either. That being so, the homeschooling was effectively stolen.

One reason this could happen has to do with the role of homeschooling support groups in the lives of many homeschooling families. Unlike other support groups in our society which focus on providing support to people in specific situations - for new mothers, in times of illness or loss, during breastfeeding or the raising of toddlers, for example - homeschooling support groups provide support for families venturing into a completely new and all-encompassing alternative lifestyle.

Since their children do not attend public or private schools as do the children of most Americans, homeschoolers' lives are different in virtually every way from the lives of average American citizens, whose daily, monthly, and yearly schedules are dictated by the schedules and requirements of the public schools and whose relationships center around friendships developed at school and with neighbors whose children attend local schools. In addition to the loss of neighborhood camaraderie around local school attendance, homeschooling families frequently face the ongoing disapproval of family and friends, neighbors, even fellow church members.

Then, too, homeschooling families are always venturing into unknown territory. There are really no true homeschooling experts, and there never will be. Homeschooling is going to be different for every family, for every parent, for every child. There are no one-size-fits-all formulas or solutions; families must always work out their own solutions in the context of their own unique lives.
Perhaps most significantly, homeschooling parents assume full responsibility for outcomes. If children in public or private school fail in some way, there are always the schools to blame.
If homeschooled children fail, then all of the fingers will be pointing to their parents. This being so, it takes a lot of courage to homeschool, and homeschooling parents need all the support they can find.

Homeschool support groups have historically provided these vulnerable and sometimes anxious and fearful parents with friendship, encouragement, support and acceptance for themselves, their children, and their choices, maybe for the very first time. Homeschooling parents have naturally responded with gratefulness and relief. It is only natural that, over time, some have become dependent on support groups and their leaders, both locally and nationally. Homeschoolers have wanted to believe what leaders have told them. They have desperately needed to be able to trust those leaders, since it is the very futures of their children which they have worried might be at stake.

This has made for an intensity in relationships and a sense of community amongst support group members which could not be found anywhere else, and which carried with it some serious pitfalls. For one thing, there was tremendous potential for the abuse of power and authority among homeschooling leaders. Unscrupulous, controlling, ambitious, or overbearing leaders were able to withhold support, withhold, distort, or control the flow of information, or dispense it only to the degree that it furthered the leader's or group's particular ambitions or goals. In addition, leaders with religious or political agendas of various kinds were able to exploit group members' loyalty and support in the furtherance of those agendas.

In contrast to the grassroots support groups of peers and equals which characterized homeschooling efforts in the late '70s and early '80s, today in almost every state and every county and city we have exclusive, heirarchical homeschooling groups in which membership is strictly controlled, with homeschooling itself often held hostage to group definitions. Sometimes the groups are the only groups available to homeschoolers in a given area. Sometimes there are other groups available, but the exclusive groups do not refer homeschoolers their way.

In some groups, signed statements of faith are required for membership. In others, prospective members must be voted in by group leaders, and those members may also be voted out. In yet other groups, members must have pastoral or church references or must agree to abide by various agreements or adhere to written policies which sometimes include such things as rigid codes of behavior, all the way down to dress codes, hairstyles, and other rules governing personal appearance. In some groups, members who are deemed to be negligent about homeschooling as the group defines homeschooling are "confronted", "held accountable," and in some cases they have been reported to school district authorities.

In several instances a small group of leaders has attended some conference or another, then returned to the group and announced that from that time forward, all members must agree to adhere by some newly written “policy manual,” effectively turning a previously inclusive group into an exclusive group with many members left hurt, alone, and without support, leaving them now to search for support groups which would help to alleviate the stress inflicted by the former “support group”!

That's not what homeschooling was ever about - not to me, not to most of us who began homeschooling way back when, when we got the vision of what it could mean to our children, to our families, if we homeschooled them. It has often been said that homeschoolers are natural leaders, an independent, opinionated group, and I think in the beginning that was true, and outside the parameters of existing, heirarchical support groups, it is still true. But within the more authoritarian, structured groups, themselves, I believe there are many frightened and vulnerable Christian homeschooling parents who have left their independence and autonomy behind in favor of unhealthy and unbiblical concepts of ôobedienceö and ôsubmissionö and "authority".

There are probably many reasons for this, but among them must certainly be included the popularity of seminars which emphasize “submission” and “authority” and “obedience” and which denigrate, subtly or overtly, critical thinking, discernment, individual autonomy and the assuming of personal responsibility for one’s own children, one’s own decisions, and one’s own life– some of the very factors which lead parents to make the decision to home school in the first place. Folks who have repeatedly been subject to such teachings will look for heirarchical structures and someone to obey, or they will seek positions of authority themselves and folks who will obey them.

There are still good groups, good folks, good leaders and great support available outside of these heirarchical, exclusive groups, but they aren’t always easy to find. Folks have to do their own homework and seek them out. I’m reluctantly coming to the conclusion that those who homeschool strictly for the love of children are probably never going to be as organized, as visible, or as powerful as those who homeschool for religious or political reasons. Political and religious agendas are powerful motivators for which people are sometimes willing to exchange all of their energy, time, money and substance, tirelessly, relentlessly, in the building of organizations of various kinds.

By contrast, homeschooling parents who are simply interested in the lives of their children and who are motivated only by what is best for those children rarely, if ever, have the heart, nor the time, neither the stomach for immersing themselves in the frenetic religious and political machinery which now drive the modern homeschooling movement. Their hearts belong to their children, and their children’s children, and the children of others whose lives they touch. That’s enough for which to give oneself, and more than enough. They may write wonderful poetry and fine books. They will almost certainly compile wonderful photo albums, portfolios, and boxes full of mementos. They’ll regale one another with anecdotes and stories of life in the homeschooling trenches. But devote their time to developing corporate structures and professional mechanisms and political lobbying groups with which to mobilize, organize, and control other homeschoolers? Just not very likely, I’m afraid.

I’m pretty much resigned to the fact that in heirarchical societies, this kind of systematization and politicization is inevitable. I don’t so much feel angry or condemning that it’s happened with the homeschooling movement. I feel sad and frustrated. I wish things were different. I’d like to live in a world which valued relationship, connection and one-another life above all. That’s my picture of Jesus, and I think that’s what He values. It bothers me that those who have politicized and sometimes exploited the movement and who have hurt some homeschoolers in the process, have sometimes done it in His name.

Those of us who are inclined to be inclusive, relationship oriented, and concerned primarily for our homeschooled children will be less frustrated if we understand that regardless what has happened to the homeschooling movement itself, there are, in fact, still homeschoolers who are ready and willing to offer their support and encouragement without strings or agendas to families outside of the machinery and averse to it, who are still and only homeschooling for the love of their children. Just as we did in years past, we can continue to speak up every chance we get.

We can let folks know we’re out here, we can let them know which organizations do and do not speak for us, we can dispute questionable research and openly, publicly, reject the publicly-made statements of people when they do not really represent us. I am hoping in the months and, Lord willing, years to come to offer you the names of supportive, helpful individuals and organizations in the pages of Gentle Spirit and to help to serve as a vehicle for the networking of likeminded folks. I have met a number of these sincere and large-hearted homeschoolers over the past few years, and I am all the richer for having known them. I am convinced that they are among the most intelligent, interesting, and quite often, the most deeply spiritual of all people. It is a great privilege to count them as my friends. I can think of no greater gift than to share them with you.



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