A homeschooling lobby group with a low profile, but growing influence, has a surprising agenda: keeping public money away from home-schoolers, the better to ensure that parents can operate free from government regulation, including from child-welfare workers.
Critics of the group, called the Home School Legal Defense Association, say less scrutiny is the last thing homeschooling needs. And they point to a spate of recent instances of misconduct in the home-school community, including child abuse.
In May, HSLDA met with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to urge her not to let federal dollars go to home-schoolers. The conservative evangelical Christian group, which has 85,000 dues-paying members and was founded in 1983, also has influenced draft legislation on homeschooling created by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the secretive business lobbying group, of which it’s a member. Its director of federal relations, William Estrada, was a member of the Trump transition team as an advisor on education policy.
“We want to be left alone,” Estrada told TPM.
“As far as power and influence, I would say HSLDA as an institution is the most powerful home-school lobbying arm and organization, and one of the most powerful religious-right groups that nobody’s really heard of,” said Kathryn Brightbill, a policy analyst at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE). “They see themselves as representatives for the whole home-school community in the U.S.”
Brightbill’s group supports greater regulation of homeschooling, and believes HSLDA’s anti-regulatory stance puts home-schooled kids at risk.
“There are children who are falling through the cracks, and often — well, I don’t know how often because it’s so hard to get numbers — children are experiencing abuse and neglect as a result of that lack of oversight,” said Brightbill.
HSLDA’s prime mission is providing legal assistance to home-schooling parents, sometimes including criminal defense and public relations for members charged with abusing or mistreating children. Several of the people it has defended in the courts or in the media have spurred controversy:
In 1995, HSLDA represented two home-schooling parents who had been ordered by a judge to send their two children to public schools after four of the couple’s other children had died in their care. The couple were ultimately allowed to continue to home-school the children.
In 2005, HSLDA lawyer Scott Somerville called Michael Gravelle, a home-school father who had been accused of keeping 11 of his adopted children in cages, “a hero.” (Somerville did not represent Gravelle in court). Gravelle and his wife were later convicted of child endangerment and abuse.
In 2013, a lawyer affiliated with HSLDA represented Carolyn and John Jackson, a couple who were indicted on 17 counts of child endangerment and assault, including allegedly keeping their children dehydrated and having their siblings police them to make sure they did not drink from the toilet in desperation. The couple were convicted on multiple counts.
The cases attracted attention from religion writers, notably Patheos blogger Libby Anne. In response to her work, HSLDA said in a 2013 Facebook post that it receives hundreds of calls each year from parents seeking help after facing false or malicious accusations from child welfare agencies.
Asked by TPM about HSLDA’s work on behalf of these clients, Estrada did not respond.
Although there were 1.8 million homeschooled students in the country in 2012, the most recent numbers available, there is currently no federal program to financially support home-schooling, and state and municipal support is largely limited to dual enrollment in public high schools and participation in sports programs. HSLDA wants to keep it that way, fearing that with public money comes public scrutiny, which leads to government interference.
“If some homeschoolers take the money, then all homeschoolers will be seen as being on the government dole and there’ll be government strings attached to it,” Estrada said.
In January 2017, President Donald Trump, addressing a joint session of Congress, called for a school choice bill that funded homeschooling. HSLDA responded with a formal letter in March thanking Trump for the shout-out, but adding: “We do, however, wish to ask that you ensure that any school choice legislative proposals specifically exclude homeschool families.”
The May one-on-one with DeVos was a major coup for HSLDA, and marked the first time an education secretary had sat down with the group.
DeVos has campaigned in support of homeschoolers since long before her appointment.”What you’re seeing is parents who are fed up with their lack of power to do anything about where their kids are assigned to go to school,” DeVos told Philanthropy magazine in 2013. “To the extent that homeschooling puts parents back in charge of their kids’ education, more power to them.”
HSLDA asked for the meeting with DeVos in order to lobby her to deny federal funds to home-schoolers, and to offer “general thanks,” according to an email sent before the meeting by Estrada to DeVos’s staff obtained by TPM through a Freedom of Information Act request.
A Department of Education spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the meeting.
To advance its agenda against government money, HSLDA also joined ALEC. HSLDA’s goal has been to block or modify model legislation authored by ALEC that has sought to expand access to public money for home-schoolers.
Estrada pointed to a footnote that HSLDA managed to have added to a recent piece of ALEC model legislation, which reads: “Due to the differences in each state’s homeschooling laws, homeschoolers in some states may oppose attempts to make homeschoolers eligible to receive state education dollars. The authors encourage you to reach out to homeschool organizations in your state in advance to discuss this with them.”
Brightbill said HSLDA’s policy and lobbying work is far more conservative and anti-government than many of its members might like. Some parents may have conservative views about national politics, she said, but they often want their kids to play sports on local school teams or dual-enroll in public schools when they get old enough to require more sophisticated teaching.
HSLDA members who spoke to TPM said they liked having access to lawyers who could help them comply with local regulations. But they also echoed Brightbill’s assessment: Interest in sports, in dual-enrollment, in money without the specter of restrictive curricula.
Brightbill says maintaining a basic level of regulation is crucial to kids’ safety, which is why HSLDA’s growing profile is troubling.
A 2000 HSLDA white paper that the association still promotes to its members, “The Social Worker At Your Door: 10 Helpful Hints” offers tips for avoiding child protection workers including “Do not spank children in public” and “Do not spank someone else’s child unless they are close Christian friends.”
“[T]he policies they’ve pushed have directly led to kids being abused … because of a lack of oversight,” Brightbill said.