Changing the Homeschool Narrative: Child Advocacy in Richmond

Last week, I had the honor of working with an amazing team of homeschool alumni (and one non-homeschooler) in Richmond, Virginia. All of us — representing ourselves and our growing alumni community, investing our own money, energy, and time —  traveled to Richmond to vocalize support for HJ 92.

Sponsored by Virginia Delegate Tom Rust, HJ 92 is a request “for the Virginia Department of Education to look into how individual school boards make their decisions regarding the religious exemption statute, and to report those findings to the state assembly. That’s it.”

Yet unsurprisingly, HSLDA and other homeschool lobbying groups have spun it as an unholy attack on religious freedom.

I went to Virginia representing myself. I went not as a representative of HARO or CRHE but simply as a concerned citizen and homeschool graduate. I went because, as I wrote when I signed Rachel Coleman‘s petition to support HJ 92 (which you can still sign, and should),

As a homeschool graduate and advocate, I believe we should and must do everything we can to ensure that children’s educational needs and rights are valued.

A few observations from the week:

1. As homeschoolers, our reputation precedes us.

I could have guessed this point simply from seeing how homeschool parents represent themselves on Facebook pages. A few minutes on the Germany Embassy Facebook page during the Wunderlich case, for example, would reveal parents calling Germans “Nazis” and “Hitler.” Xenophobia is not exactly good stewardship of the homeschooling movement, yet that is how parents are choosing to represent it.

And the fact is, the non-online representation is similarly annoying. Every day I went to delegates’ offices, I continually encountered delegates and legislative assistants who bristled the moment I said I was a “homeschooler.” Even individuals that were pro-homeschooling would occasionally have this reaction. Being bombarded by endless emails and phone calls (upon HSLDA’s encouragement) filled with persecution complexes and conspiracy theories is apparently not a fun pastime for our public representatives, whether or not they are homeschool-friendly. It makes us appear like cartoon characters to them.

So as a former homeschool student, it was difficult sometimes to even start a conversation. The conversation would be over before it even began. I’d want to say, “I’m a former homeschooler and I support accountability,” but I’d get as far as, “I’m a former homeschooler…” and a delegate would say, “Not interested.” I’d have to fight just to be heard even though the delegate and I were actually on the same “team.”

“Homeschooler” was on several occasions a liability to basic dialogue.

2. Politicians have never heard “the other side” represented.

While in Richmond to support HJ 92, we received word that HSLDA’s Michael Farris himself would also be in Richmond to oppose it.
While in Richmond to support HJ 92, we received word that HSLDA’s Michael Farris himself would also be in Richmond to oppose it.

It was fascinating how, time and time again, I’d finally be able to communicate not only am I a former homeschooler, but I am not rabidly opposed to regulations, and then this lightbulb would go on in delegates and aides’ heads. Their aura would change and suddenly they would be completely overwhelmed with… the strangeness of it all.

“Wait, you support HJ 92?” “Yes.” “And you were homeschooled?” “Yes.” “I’ve never heard of such a thing. You realize you are vastly outnumbered?” “Oh yes I do. But how many of the people opposed are parents rather than graduates?” “… …I’ve never thought of it like that before.” “Exactly.”

Last week was the first time most of these delegates or aides ever encountered a different “side” of the homeschooling world. For delegates in favor of HJ 92, it was a watershed moment to realize some homeschoolers actually support their work. For delegates opposed to HJ 92, this was a moment when they realized they are only defending one segment of the homeschooling community — and that the tide may be turning in the future.

3. The public school lobby is not necessarily helping us, nor should it automatically be considered an “ally.”

One morning on their way to the General Assembly building in Richmond, two members of our team took a shuttle from their hotel. They shared the shuttle with another individual also staying at the hotel. While making small talk, our team members found out that the other individual was a lobbyist for the Virginia Education Association. They asked what he was lobbying for. He said he was lobbying to keep homeschool kids out of public school sports. (The VEA is opposed to including homeschool kids.) He then asked what they were lobbying for.

Upon hearing they were former homeschoolers lobbying for HJ 92, he was immediately interested. He had no idea former homeschoolers are speaking up in favor of accountability; he asked what he could do to help.

“If you want to help,” our team members said, “stop lobbying to keep homeschool kids out of public school sports.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“If homeschool kids are experiencing abuse or neglect, coming into contact with a mandatory reporter in a public school might be those kids’ only opportunity to find help.”

“I had never thought of that before,” the lobbyist replied.

This moment highlighted for me exactly what is at stake as we work to change the homeschool narrative. We are not working to change that narrative merely to change the homeschool lobby; the public school lobby needs to hear our voices as well. By envisioning both of these lobbies as dueling groups on opposite sides of a political battle, we lose opportunities to focus on what is really at stake: children’s wellbeing and education. 

Refocusing on children requires a narrative change that transcends any one lobbying group.

4. Fears about “parental rights” advocates are entirely justified.

While in Richmond to support HJ 92, we received word that HSLDA’s Michael Farris himself would also be in Richmond to oppose it. The Virginia Christian Alliance was holding its Lobby Day across the street from the General Assembly building in the Capitol. Farris was the keynote speaker, arguing for his pet Convention of the States project. Afterwards, the attendees flooded the General Assembly building, one of their priorities being “opposing Delegate Thomas Rust’s resolution, HJ92.”

Later that day while eating lunch, the VCA lobbyists (including VCA Director Don Blake and Board Member Rita Dunaway) randomly (or not?) sat at the same table as myself and two other members of our team. Rita Dunaway said — in the context of joining HSLDA in opposition to HJ 92 — that children do not have any rights. This sentiment was echoed the following day when a Virginian Republican delegate unabashedly said, “Parents have a right to screw up their kids.”

It’s one thing to read and write about this sort of bizarre idolizing of parental rights online. I do that every day and sometimes I think maybe I’m exaggerating. But no, I’m not.

These people really do think children are chattel. That’s a scary thought.

5. We face an uphill battle.

At the end of the week, we were 11 former homeschoolers representing hundreds of other former homeschoolers. But we were only 11.

One delegate said he had received over 500 phone calls and emails opposing HJ 92. Most delegates said that their constituents were overwhelmingly homeschoolers and overwhelmingly opposed to the bill as well. Led by HSLDA, the homeschool lobby has an army of parents ready and willing to flood communication lines to do whatever that lobby wants. It is well-funded, well-organized, has significant political clout, and can easily strong-arm politicians (surprisingly even Democrats, as we found out).

And here we are, some of us still in college, some of us working minimum wage jobs, some of us buried under student loans; but all of us working through our pasts and trying our best to make the future of homeschooling better. It is a steep hill to climb and there are many obstacles in our way.

But we have taken the first step.

Our voices are being heard. And we will keep fighting.

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