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Meet HSLDA, The Most Powerful Religious-Right Lobby You’ve Never Heard Of

flickr/r. nial bradshaw

The Home School Legal Defense Association has fomented a culture of suspicion and wild conspiracy theories that may put children in danger.

Eleanor Skelton was homeschooled from kindergarten to graduation in Colorado and Texas, and for most of her childhood her parents kept a number taped beside their front door.

In case of emergencies, that number would connect them with an attorney from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) — just in case any curious social worker appeared on their doorstep asking questions. States away in Michigan, Erin DePree, another homeschool student, had that same number memorized.

To them and many other homeschoolers, the HSLDA represents the first and best protection they have against an adversarial government bureaucracy.

In the early ‘80s, home education was widely illegal, and fell under truancy statutes—which govern compulsory full-time education—in many states. In response, a few intrepid lawyers founded the HSLDA and over the decades have relentlessly pursued the utter abolishment of homeschooling regulation and oversight. As of 2018, they’ve largely succeeded. Not only is homeschooling legal in every state, it is now so unregulated that in 11 states, parents are not required to notify anyone of their intent to homeschool.

In those states, however, no one outside the home may know that a child exists, which leaves the door wide open to abuse—and even death.

Such is the disturbing case in Michigan, where Stoni and Stephen Berry were found dead in a freezer. Their mother tortured and murdered them, using Michigan’s gaping legal loopholes to hide her crimes for years. In New Jersey—another state where parents can educate their children at home without notice—a concerned neighbor found a 19-year-old boy who weighed 45 pounds rummaging through her garbage. If that sounds familiar, you might have read about the Turpin family in California — where homeschooling parents are required to give notice, but nothing else — who starved and tortured their children until one of them escaped out a bedroom window with an old cellphone.

In each of these states, representatives introduced bills that would create a meager amount of protection for homeschooled children. In California, Assemblyman Medina introduced a bill on February 16th that would require private homeschools to conform to the same requirement as regular private schools: a fire inspection.

However, it’s likely that this bill will fall under the same hail of fire that similar bills in New Hampshire and Hawaii faced this month. In my phone call with HSLDA’s president, Mike Smith, he grew rapturous at the power they have to mobilize the homeschooling community. “600 people showed up in New Hampshire, and 1,000 showed up in Hawaii,” he said of the hearings for bills in those states. Kahele, who wrote the proposed law in response to the death of a 9-year-old in Hawaii, withdrew his bill on February 21st.

When lawmakers seek to prevent parents from using the lack of homeschooling regulations to cover up abusing their children, they are frequently surprised by the ferocity of the HSLDA-organized resistance. In New Jersey, Weinberg said she and her office were “besieged” by phone calls from angry homeschooling parents after she introduced a bill asking them to take their children to a doctor.

Heinitz, a legislative director in Michigan, said “they make anti-vaxxers seem rational.”

This overwhelming political influence has been carefully cultivated by the team at HSLDA. For years they sent out the Court Report, a magazine that both Erin DePree and Eleanor Skelton remember reading. DePree read every issue her parents received, and said that social workers and child protective services were consistently portrayed as “evil” and people who “abuse their power.” Skelton only read the issues her mother decided were not too grisly; in her opinion, HSLDA has used resources like the Court Report and their modern e-mail alerts and Facebook posts to “fuel fear and distrust of government.”

To her, “HSLDA never believed children were being abused if CPS knocked on the door to check on families — it was always the parents who were persecuted for being godly.” In the interviews I conducted with homeschool graduates all over the country, the consistent message they received from HSLDA was debilitating paranoia.

A homeschooler who wished to remain anonymous said that even when her father beat her severely, HSLDA’s fear mongering had made her so terrified of family services that she didn’t even want to go to the ER for treatment. HSLDA has their political presence because they’ve successfully terrorized the homeschooling community into believing government regulations and CPS will destroy their families.

Kathryn Brightbill is the policy analyst at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, an organization founded by homeschool alumni who seek sensible homeschooling reforms to protect children like the Turpins from abuse, neglect, torture, and murder.

According to Brightbill:

“HSLDA has had an outsized role in shaping homeschool culture, including secular homeschool culture. Whatever noble motivations they may have had to help homeschoolers at the organization’s outset, their belief that children don’t have rights — only parents have rights — combined with their decision to take parent’s claims at face value instead of vetting the cases they choose, has made them an organization that enables child abuse and educational neglect.”

In the decades since their founding, HSLDA has fomented a widespread culture of suspicion, paranoia, and wild conspiracy theories that propel parents to make phone calls to legislatures by the thousands — but that’s not where their political influence ends. Brightbill describes them as the “most powerful religious-right organization that nobody’s ever heard of.”

HSLDA’s Homeschool Foundation is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that drafts model conservative legislation for distribution to state legislatures. They are on ALEC’s education taskforce, and when I interviewed HSLDA President Mike Smith he described their membership as a fantastic success. In 2017, Betsy DeVos was the first education secretary to ever meet with HSLDA one-on-one, and they’re confident that DeVos will respect their wishes to keep government money out of homeschooling — and any regulatory strings that might come with it.

Through their daughter organization—Generation Joshua—and the many state-level PACs that they’ve sponsored or encouraged, HSLDA’s political influence is pervasive. Kevin Swanson, one of the most significant homeschool leaders in Colorado, invited Republican presidential candidates to his National Religious Liberties Conference, which Rachel Maddow later dubbed the “kill the gays” conference.

Michael Farris, the first president of HSLDA, helped write the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA, often used to defend businesses who refuse to serve same-sex couples) in 1993, and has helped many states pass their own version. Farris is now the president of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group, and is working closely with the current administration, including Sessions and Pence.

Michael Farris would like to expand the influence of the HSLDA by recruiting and training homeschooling graduates to support his goals. To accomplish this, he founded Generation Joshua fifteen years ago, choosing the name “Joshua” to invoke biblical stories of the conquest of Canaan.

The first homeschooling parents were like Moses, leading their children out of the “Egypt” of traditional education; their children will be like Joshua, the next generation rising up to fill their parent’s (conservative, religious) shoes.

According to Joel Grewe, Generation Joshua’s director, they’re focused on getting homeschool students politically involved; he defines true success by whether students learn how to become “active citizens who robustly impact the political process.” In real-world terms, Generation Joshua deploys about a dozen or so Student Action Teams to conservative races around the country every election cycle.

In 2016, Grewe says those teams saw a 90% success rate in the races they campaigned for. When asked about the upcoming 2018 cycle, he predicted “we’re going to see an increase in homeschoolers involved in the mid-terms,” and boasted in a 2014 interview that they can swing races by as much as seven percentage points, “if the stars align.”

He also claimed that many politicians — he named Reeves (R-VA), McClintock (R-CA), and Coburn (R-OK) — credit Generation Joshua with their electoral wins.

Despite HSLDA’s intentions, many homeschooling graduates have actually grown up to oppose their goals. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education and the Center for Home Education Policy are both organizations founded by homeschool alumni that oppose HSLDA.

The same social media that Smith praised in my interview as being a game-changer for homeschooling activism has provided a platform for alumni to find each other and begin sharing their stories — accounts that range from glowing to gut-wrenching. Homeschooling’s Invisible Children and Homeschoolers Anonymous are both sites that have formed in the last few years where homeschooler’s stories are told from the student’s perspective.

Whether these newer homeschooled children’s advocates will prevail in the fight to protect children, or HSLDA will continue dragging states down its reckless, unregulated, treacherous path remains to be seen.