For four decades, tens of thousands of families have operated home schools, but it was not until the last several days when nearly every parent with a school-aged child considered what it actually means to educate at home. Google Trends shows the spike in people searching for “homeschool” just over the last seven days and interest has surely grown after President Trump’s recommendation on Monday.
Yet what parents are doing right now in their living rooms is not homeschooling as we have come to know it. In conducting research for a book on the politics of homeschooling due out later this year, I’ve found the homeschooling movement has been anything but an experiment in social isolation; in fact, it has been an incredibly well-coordinated project of community and political organizing.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were close to 2 million homeschoolers: 1.69 million in 2016 or 3% of K-12 enrollment according to the National Center for Education Statistics. It is legal to homeschool in every state in the country, but it has flourished in rural and small towns where around a third of homeschoolers reside.
This has led to a perception that homeschooling is a form of voluntary (and potentially harmful) social exclusion, analogous to our situation right now. This is wrong. Available evidence suggests children who learn at home are no worse than other students in terms of childhood friendships, openness to new experiences, and civic involvement later in life (See: Richard Medlin’s 2013 research review in the Peabody Journal of Education).
And it is in this last category—civic involvement—that homeschooling is most fascinating.
From its earliest days, homeschooling has been incredibly political and organized. Homeschooling thought leaders in the early 1980—like the controversial theologian RJ Rushdoony—were also deeply involved in the formation of the Religious Right and members of influential groups like the Council for National Policy (See: Michael McVicar’s 2015 biography of Rushdoony, Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism).
While local activists organized grassroots advocacy to make homeschooling legal across the country, national leaders established the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) near Washington, DC. HSLDA—and its influential former leader Michael Farris—was never a major campaign donor, but it has been a legal and political force, fighting to limit any intrusion on parents’ freedom to educate at home. HSLDA and its allies across each state have been so effective that Jessica Huseman of ProPublica reported that one state legislator from Michigan claimed “I’ve never seen a lobby more powerful and scary.”
Part of what has made HSLDA so feared is its ability to quickly mobilize homeschool parents to protest proposed legislative changes. It famously rallied thousands of families in 1994 to besiege Congress with an estimated 1 to 1.5 million phone calls after Congressman George Miller’s proposal to reauthorize the Early and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) worried homeschool teachers (See: Milton Gaither’s 2016 excellent book, Homeschooling: An American History). HSLDA quickly won concessions from Congress and an explicit exemption from new federal teaching standards.
HSLDA continues to rally families today, usually to defend homeschooling, but also on other conservative causes, a point of disagreement with those who believe in homeschooling but not the larger socially-conservative agenda. This has been especially contentious during recent elections when homeschool families have been a frequent source of Get Out the Vote activities for Republican candidates.
In 2000, a homeschool advocate from Illinois created a curriculum called “Homeschoolers for Bush in 2000” which wove campaign activities into a 6-week online lesson plan. There was no equivalent curriculum to support Al Gore.
In 2008, Governor Mike Huckabee came in first in Iowa based in part on the role of homeschool organizations and volunteers, what the New York Times called “a kind of miniature political machine.”
And in 2016, Grover Norquist argued in the Washington Post that homeschool families, as well as frackers, gun owners, and vapers, were a critical bloc of voters for Republican’s to rally on election day.
It isn’t clear what portion of homeschool parents agree with Norquist or even how many are Republicans. Using the publicly-available American National Election Survey (ANES), only a small majority of parents responded that they voted for Mitt Romney (61%) in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016 (62%). This is, at a best, a rough estimate because of the relatively small number of homeschool respondents, but it suggests, in practice, homeschoolers are more politically diverse than it would appear.
Homeschooling has always been political and often misunderstood. Efforts to stem COVID-19, too, have been politicized and what to do is difficult to understand. As families adjust and begin turning their living rooms into classrooms, the political context of homeschooling matters. Homeschooling has been a political movement and largely successful educationally, not because of voluntary isolation, but the exact opposite. These networks and organizational connections have effectively supported families, both educationally and politically.
Families educating at home for the first time should, then, continue turning to existing forms of support, within the public and private school system and especially from the teachers who are now figuring out how best to provide lesson plans at a distance.
Heath Brown is an associate professor of public policy, City University of New York, Grad Center and John Jay College, is the author of a forthcoming book on the politics of homeschooling, due to be published by Columbia University Press later this year.