This post reviews Bruce S. Cooper and John Sureau, “The Politics of Homeschooling: New Developments, New Challenges” in Educational Policy 21, no. 1 (Jan and Mar 2007): 110-131 (available online here)
Cooper, editor of the recent anthology Homeschooling In Full View, and his collaborator Sureau here summarize legal, legislative, and public-image developments in the homeschooling movement.
They begin with a somewhat disjointed summary of much of the existing research on homeschooling, noting especially the remarkable achievement of the movement from the late 1970s to the early 1990s in making homeschooling legal. Here they draw heavily on the work of Scott Somerville, a lawyer formerly employed by HSLDA. Somerville repeats in his historical account a common claim among homeschoolers that in the 1970s the practice was, in Cooper and Sureau’s words, “deemed against the law in most states in the Union.” I used to think that too until I did the research for the chapter in my book on the legal history of homeschooling and learned, to my surprise, that in fact in the 1970s fifteen state compulsory education statutes allowed for some form of home-based education and twenty-one implied recognition of home-based instruction by acknowledging private tutoring or allowing for “equivalent instruction elsewhere” than public schools. Fourteen state statutes said nothing at all about teaching children at home. Among the 36 states that either explicitly allowed for or implied acceptance of home instruction there were many differences as to how strictly home instruction was regulated. Some left such matters up to local school boards. Some established state-wide parameters. Six even required home instructors to be certified by the state. But homeschooling was not illegal. It was, however, on questionable footing in many places, and the tendency of many states to leave such decisions up to local school personnel often made for ugly situations when officials and parents had conflicting goals. One reason homeschoolers were so successful in their political efforts was that they frequently had the law on their side despite what local superintendents thought.
Anyway, Cooper and Sureau conclude their introductory comments by interpreting homeschooling as the most vibrant example of what they call “the politics of privatization,” an orientation that clashes with the historic understanding of education as a public function. Later in the article they expand on this theme, interpreting the conflict over homeschooling as “a contest between personal rights and freedoms held up against the power of the state to control the individual.”
Cooper and Sureau next summarize how homeschoolers used the courts to ensure this private freedom. Again, their account is marred by a mistaken view that, as they put it in this section, “homeschooling was considered a crime in nearly every state 20 years ago.” Their brief history of various court cases that legalized homeschooling throughout the country is misleading and incomplete (the Leeper decision in Texas, for example, was by no means the first to legalize homeschooling as they assert). Given the sources on which they base their account it is understandable how they were misled. Readers wanting a more accurate and complete description of the legal and legislative history of homeschooling can find it in my book.
Though their historical analysis is flawed, Cooper and Sureau are much better when describing contemporary legal issues. They provide brief summaries of recent developments on several topics: requiring testing of homeschoolers, mandated home visits by outside personnel, homeschooler access to special education services, and homeschooler participation in public school resources and extracurriculars. After surveying all of this they conclude that the law on such matters is still far from settled. This section is the best and most useful part of the article.
Next, Cooper and Sureau try to explain the support networks that have allowed homeschoolers to join together to achieve their political goals. Again, their writing is quite hard to follow. For some reason they decided to focus on three groups: HSLDA, NHERI, and CHAP. HSLDA is of course the nation’s largest and most powerful political and legal homeschooling organization. NHERI is Brian Ray’s “National Home Education Research Institute.” One would have no idea from Cooper and Sureau’s account that NHERI is really a subsidiary of HSLDA and that most researchers find the reports NHERI has put out over the years to be of very little evidentiary value. Finally, CHAP is the “Christian Homeschool Association of Pennsylvania.” While CHAP is a very important organization in PA, it is unclear why this state association was singled out for coverage, and one gets no sense at all from this article how CHAP is related to HSLDA and to other statewide organizations like it all around the country. Again, for more complete coverage of the various networks that make up the homeschooling movement I’d recommend (you guessed it) my book. It places these three organizations and many others in their proper context and also makes clear the conflict some of these groups have had over the years with other groups reflecting different ideological perspectives. All of this is missing in Cooper and Sureau’s account.
The authors conclude with a grab-bag of issues their previous sections hadn’t covered. They mention that homeschooling’s public image has improved dramatically since the 1980s, that more and more partnerships between homeschoolers and public schools are emerging, and that colleges are increasingly sensitive to and eager for homeschooled applicants. They conclude by claiming that the strong association of homeschooling with the powerful religious right is the best explanation for its political successes.
As my comments above have already made clear, I am not at all impressed with this piece. Aside from the historical inaccuracies and confusion of the narrative, I find the fundamental interpretation of the movement these authors provide to be incoherent. An article that began by associating homeschooling (rightly, in my view) with the privatization of American life ends by seeing it as merely an extension of the religious right. In my view the homeschooling movement has been so successful not because it was right-wing or because many of its most vocal leaders are outspoken Christians. Rather, its success stems from the fact that antigovernment sentiment, distrust of bureaucrats and experts, skepticism about the value of public schools, and a warm spot for mothers loving their kids are all very mainstream ideas. Homeschooling is as much an outgrowth of the leftist counterculture as the religious right, and as I argue in my book, both the left and the right were reacting in very similar ways against the same things, using quite similar rhetoric and political strategy. What was countercultural in the 1970s is now the American norm, just as blue jeans and t-shirts, formerly symbols of outsider protest, are now the American uniform. Anyone wishing for a good survey of what has happened and what is happening in homeschooling would be better served by looking elsewhere than this article.