Millions of children and their families are navigating a world without in-person school this fall, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues. A nationwide surge in homeschooling seemed far-fetched six months ago, but today, 60 percent of parents say they are likely to pursue at-home learning options this fall. These options extend far beyond remote learning provided in the spring by brick-and-mortar school districts (which The Wall Street Journal deemed “a failure”). The number of families in Vermont filing the necessary paperwork to homeschool has increased by 75 percent from last year (laws vary by state, with many states requiring no notice at all). In Nebraska, filings are up by 21 percent and counting. Parents in North Carolina rushed to submit notices of intent to homeschool online, incapacitating the state’s nonpublic education system’s website. The senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), the premier legal establishment responsible for expanding homeschooling rights across the U.S., predicts that there could be a 500 percent increase in homeschooled students this fall.
As a product of the Christian homeschooling movement, I’m concerned about what exactly new homeschoolers will find. Many Christian homeschooling advocates have decried public schools as “values-indoctrination centers.” The reality, however, is that much of the most popular homeschooling materials—which many of these new homeschoolers are certain to find—are their own form of indoctrination. A large part of the industry markets their K-12 curricula to a distinctly conservative evangelical audience, offering comprehensive lesson plans and textbooks in every subject. I can certainly trace the unique benefits of my own K-12 homeschool education—the freedom to pursue my own interests chief among them—but I can also identify the troubling messages about religion, race, and the origins of the United States that I encountered in the world of Christian homeschooling.
Before the pandemic, homeschoolers were a small but growing population, roughly 3 percent of American schoolchildren. One of the most remarkable features of the nearly 2.5 million U.S. homeschoolers is how relatively little we concretely know about them, due to a lack of oversight and reporting measures that vary by state. The most current (albeit limited) data on homeschoolers tells us that they are generally Christian (66 percent), above the poverty threshold (79 percent), and white (83 percent).
American homeschooling as we currently know it developed as a post-1960s alternative to widely available public education. It is often attributed to the work of John Holt, a left-leaning education advocate who coined the term “unschooling” in the 1970s. For some white Christians, though, the process of exiting public schools came after desegregation and the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court decisions deeming school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading unconstitutional. More private schools opened, and many had Christian affiliations. In time, some families opted out of schools altogether by choosing to teach their children at home. The primary reason that these families received extensive legal protections—and that homeschooling became a legitimate education system in the U.S.—was thanks to the work of a little-known Reformed theologian.
Rousas J. Rushdoony’s passion for homeschooling was born out of the doctrine he formulated in the 1960s: Christian Reconstructionism. For Rushdoony, Christianity was defined by the “dominion mandate,” which stems from the command God gives to Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Taking “dominion” over the earth required Christians to exert power over all spheres of society, from the upper echelons of government to the nuclear family.
Rushdoony’s “single most important tool for the exercise of dominion,” writes scholar Julie Ingersoll in Building God’s Kingdom, was homeschooling, which he believed would allow parents to insulate their children from the secular world and create generations dedicated to reconstruction. Certainly not all of today’s Christian homeschoolers ascribe to Reconstructionist theology or could even identify Rushdoony by name, but this fact does not change that Christian Reconstructionism has been woven into the story of homeschooling in the U.S. for decades.
Rushdoony needed allies to ensure that homeschooling could grow with little restriction: enter lawyer Michael Farris and the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which Farris founded in 1983. HSLDA touted itself as a highly reputable law firm that would fight for the rights of parents to homeschool—which it did, using Rushdoony as an expert witness in multiple key cases. A decade later, homeschooling was legal in all 50 states.
Farris has been vocal about his belief that “the academic preparation of our children is a means to an end, not the end itself.” This end is complete engagement in “the battle to take the land,” by which he means preparing homeschooled students for public life as Christian leaders. Farris, who is now president and CEO of the powerful legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, also founded Patrick Henry College, a conservative institution catering to homeschooled students that is well-known for its remarkable success rate placing students in coveted Capitol Hill internships.
Of course, neither Rushdoony’s theology nor Farris’ activism means that the current population of homeschoolers, whether religious or not, subscribe to these exact beliefs. There are myriad compelling reasons to homeschool that are not tied to an obscure theocratic worldview from the 1960s. For instance, over the last several years, a modest but growing number of Black families have turned to homeschooling in response to the racism embedded in public and private schools. Yet HSLDA, and its primarily white evangelical constituency, is still an incredibly powerful player in the homeschooling world, and it is carefully targeting families leaving traditional schools in the wake of the pandemic. Consider, for instance, the Indiana Association of Home Educators (IAHE), recently featured by a local news channel serving Indiana and Michigan. The IAHE, which reported a significant increase in inquiries from families new to homeschooling, features a link to join HSLDA on their website’s homepage. Or, take the Home Educators’ Association of Virginia (HEAV), recently featured by a local news station serving Virginia. HEAV reports having received at least 5,000 new membership requests in the last three months; HEAV also offers a discount on HSLDA membership to new members. Nebraska Homeschool, given a nationwide audience in an Associated Press report, lists HSLDA as a partner on their homepage. None of these groups explicitly bill themselves as Christian at first glance, but all retain ties to HSLDA and promote it to interested families, regardless of whether those families are seeking a religious homeschooling organization.
HSLDA has seized on the present moment. They have created guides to help parents navigate withdrawing their students from public schools. They are promoting a new website targeting (only) mothers “suddenly schooling at home during the pandemic,” with apparently little regard for the currently spiking gender gap in homeschooling responsibilities. They are advertising their own K-12 online academy, which HSLDA members can enroll in at a discounted rate. And, most importantly, they are directing new homeschooling families to curricula written by and for conservative Christians.
The educational materials promoted by HSLDA and its affiliates across the U.S. may not mention Rushdoony by name, but many of them carry his narrative of dominion-taking nonetheless. There’s K-12 curriculum produced by Bob Jones University, notorious for banning interracial relationships on its campus until the year 2000, which teaches that God gave the United States to Protestant Christians. There’s Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), which has seen an increase in demand for its materials during the pandemic and describes the history taught in public schools as “revisionist.” There’s Abeka, which denounces evolution, labels gay rights as a “radical social agenda,” and claims that enslaved people who “knew Christ” were better off than free people who did not. Besides being incredibly popular among Christian homeschoolers, what these curricula have in common is that they portray the United States as a nation belonging to Christians—and as a nation that Christians have to take back.
Christian nationalist narratives like these have existed in predominantly white and conservative religious spaces long before this pandemic, but their prevalence in homeschooling materials means these ideologies may infiltrate a new, unwitting audience. The pandemic-induced withdrawal from public schools poses what one homeschooling advocate recently called “the biggest opportunity for domestic victory the Right has had in 70 years.” Julie Ann Smith, a homeschooling mother and writer, explains it like this on her website: “When I started homeschooling in the early 90s, I went to listen to Christian homeschoolers speak and they would often sell curricula in another room. But one thing I didn’t consider was this: those running the homeschool conventions had an agenda and they only sold curricula which matched their agenda.” Later, she came to understand that the homeschooling materials and circles she encountered were embedded with patriarchal and Reconstructionist ideologies. It’s not difficult to imagine families facing a similar version of Smith’s problem, as they try to quickly cobble together a semester to a year’s worth of education for their student and opt for the materials that are the most heavily promoted and widely lauded by homeschoolers. They should understand that these materials come with an agenda.
In the era of Covid-19, homeschooling is, for many families, the only option. It has the potential to be a positive one, providing students and their families the opportunity to chart the course of their education. However, even in the midst of a pandemic and with so many responsibilities, parents have yet another fraught task on their to-do list: They must be mindful of the history and ideological backbone of American homeschooling. Many of the materials they may encounter have roots in Christian nationalism. Families who wish to take advantage of all the good that homeschooling has to offer are responsible not just for their children’s education but their own knowledge as well.
Elena Trueba is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She holds a Master of Theological Studies with an emphasis in religion, ethics, and politics from Harvard Divinity School.