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Are Homeschoolers the Foot Soldiers for Conservative Politics?

By BETH HARPAZ

Homeschooling in the U.S. has boomed in the last 50 years, going from fewer than 20,000 students in the 1970s to nearly 1.8 million in 2016–more than 3% of all school-age children. 

But “even though the number of homeschoolers remains a fraction of the total enrollment of students in U.S. schools, homeschoolers maintain substantial influence over education policy, as well as other seemingly unrelated social and economic policy realms,” says Professor Heath Brown (John Jay College, The Graduate Center), in his new book Homeschooling the Right: How Conservative Education Activism Erodes the State

Homeschooling has roots in 1970s progressive anti-establishment culture. But “it was the Religious Right that successfully took up homeschooling” as part of a larger crusade against secularism and liberal values, Brown writes. The conservative movement “largely failed to win sustained policy victories on abortion, gay marriage, and school prayer,” but by institutionalizing and politicizing homeschooling, a “vast network” of activists was put in place to support their causes.

“This robust and brand new civil society … also served to advance larger political aims of conservative leaders, who could depend on an organized and easily mobilized constituency,” Brown writes. While this “parallel” society “appeared to be a form of retreat” from the world of secular and public institutions, in fact it “was another way to bring up the next generation of conservative activists, ready to mobilize and defend a specific vision for the country.”

Brown found that many states, like Arkansas, have virtually no requirements for homeschoolers. Parents need not have a high school degree to teach their kids; kids don’t need to demonstrate subject competency, take standardized tests, or follow any curriculum.

And while there’s some evidence that more Black, Hispanic, and non-religious parents have lately begun to choose homeschooling, the typical pre-pandemic homeschooling family had a specific demographic and political identity: white, Christian, rural or suburban, not poor, anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, pro-gun rights, and broadly libertarian and opposed to government social welfare programs. 

Brown says that even when homeschooling families start out without a strong conservative orientation, a “policy feedback dynamic” pushes them rightward. First they are encouraged to become more active in politics, then any religious and libertarian inclinations they might have are reinforced by the larger homeschooling community and political forces behind it. 

Eventually the “parallel politics” built by conservative forces to support homeschoolers “undermines existing political institutions, threatens democratic accountability and wrests political power away from Democrats and the largely secular social welfare state,” he says. For example, enough families have left public schools in parts of North Carolina and West Virginia that education budgets have been cut and schools have closed. 

Large parts of the homeschooling movement never saw a retreat from the public square as the central goal,” he said. “Rather, the point was always to change what happens in the public square.”