One of the Christian Right's strengths has been its success in attacking secular institutions while simultaneously building an alternative subculture. Education is a case in point. In a number of school districts, from central Florida to San Diego county, Christian rightists have blocked Head Start programs, sex education, and multicultural curricula. But public school battles would be even fiercer were it not for the thousands of evangelical families who have dropped out of the system altogether.
Most, though certainly not all, home schoolers are born-again Christians, and estimates of their numbers range widely. The most recent Department of Education study estimates between 248,500 and 353,500 home schooled students, which is less than 1 percent of the total school-age population. Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) claims there are 700,000 to one million home school students. Department of Education researcher Patricia Lines says Farris's figures are high because he includes pre-school aged children and an unknown number of students who, though officially enrolled in private Christian academies, spend part of their school week learning at home. Lines also says Farris's figure reflects the growth of home schooling just in the past few years.
Home schooling is common in rural areas, and it's perfectly legal. Most states require only a high school diploma from parents who teach at home. Existing data show that home-schooled students perform better than average on achievement tests in basic subjects. And why wouldn't they? Compared with public school classrooms packed with 30 or more students, proper home schooling gives kids one-to-one training in reading, writing, math, etc.
The drive for higher academic achievement is probably the least salient reason why thousands of Christian parents have dropped out of public schools. For the ranks of the Christian Right, home schooling is more than a private choice. It is a trend with profound political implications. Home schooling is one means through which the Right is solidifying a narrow, reactive ideology among parents and their children.
Home schooling advocates reinforce parents' political justifications for the private choice they've made. For example, in one of the movement's most popular books, The Right Choice, Home School Legal Defense Association attorney Christopher Klicka urges Christians to break free from the academic, moral, and philosophical crises plaguing the public schools. Academically, Klicka claims that "public school history books are filled with pro-Communist propaganda" and that teachers are no longer teaching phonics. Morally, Klicka points to violence, drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity, all supposedly promoted by public school teachers who won't teach real values but do teach kids New Age meditation techniques. Philosophically, Klicka writes, the danger lies in the humanist underpinnings of public education since the 19th century. After all, educational philosopher John Dewey was the first president of the American Humanist Association. "Knowing this," Klicka asks, "can we risk sending our children to public school?"
And what may happen as more parents decline such a risk? In the coming years, home school graduates will form the backbone of a new generation of Christian Right activists. Months after the fact, Christian home school activists are still buzzing about their legislative victory last winter. An amendment attached to a Congressional education bill would have required home school teachers to be state-certified in all subjects they teach. But once the bill was publicized on Christian radio stations, home schoolers flooded Congress with faxes and 800,000 constituent phone calls. The amendment was swiftly removed from the bill, and the home schooling movement had its first taste of nationwide lobbying power.
Politics aside, home schooling also spells big bucks for about a dozen leading producers of curricula materials. I got on the mailing lists of a just a few, and was soon deluged with stacks of catalogs, magazines, and free samples, all with a fundamentalist bent.
The largest producer of home school materials is called A-Beka School Services, the publishing arm of Pensacola Christian College in Florida. A-Beka sells textbook and educational video sets for 680,000 students each year. Customers include home schoolers plus 24,000 private schools. A-Beka's catalog begins with the advisory that its editorial department "has rejected the humanistic philosophy and methods of the progressive educators and has turned to original sources and the writings of true scholars. Of course, the most original source is always the Word of God, which is the only foundation for true scholarship in any area of human endeavor." From there, the curriculum for grades K-12 includes Bible study, history, math, science/health, and language skills. For each subject, A-Beka provides age-appropriate books, flash cards, maps, games and workbooks. The math materials are the most straightforward. I don't know what A- Beka's 11th grade "Christian chemistry text" entails. But the 10th grade biology curriculum is called "God's Living Creation," and A-Beka boasts that it is "truly non-evolutionary in philosophy, spirit, and sequence of study." The reading, history, and government materials are the most heavily ideological. No multiculturalism here. The early reading textbooks are all about Jesus, the pilgrims, and other famous white guys. The high-school government text is "written from the standpoint of Biblical Christianity and political and economic conservatism<193>The concepts of private property, free enterprise, profit and capital, and limited government are clearly presented."
A Real Job
I found more evidence of Christian home schooling's links to right-wing politics at a hot August conference entitled "God, Give Us Men: A Gathering for Home-School Fathers and their Wives." Since I am neither a father nor a wife, I felt just a wee bit out of place at the Zion Fellowship Four-Square Gospel church in Danville, one of the Bay area's wealthiest suburbs. (The Four-Square denomination was founded by Aimee Semple McPherson in 1923.) The 300 some-odd men and their wives--paired off like they were headed for Noah's Ark--assembled at the ungodly hour of 8:00 AM for the latest briefings by a few of the home schooling subculture's leading figures.
Gregg Harris's Christian Life Workshops organizes dozens of similar conferences all over the country. From his home in Gresham, Oregon, Harris, father of six, is a major distributor of home-schooling products in his own right. He spent part of the Saturday conference doing a show-and-tell of new educational products. One was a wall chart to train young children to perform household chores in exchange for paper money, redeemable for toys at the end of each week. Harris was particularly excited about a new board game, "The Richest Christian," a sort of religious version of Monopoly that sells for $23. The goal of the game is for players to "lay up treasures in heaven" by accumulating money that can then be shared charitably with others.
The conferences' main draw, though, was Michael Farris, father of nine and current president and co-founder of the HSLDA in 1983, around the same time as he was hired to head the legal department for Concerned Women for America. In the past decade, HSLDA has grown to employ several dozen attorneys, representing some 37,000 member families. For an annual fee of $100, these families rely on HSLDA for legal advice in dealing with local truant officers and school districts.
Also in the past decade, home schooling has been recognized as legal in every state, though precise restrictions vary from one place to the next. California's Education Code, for example, requires parents to make attendance records available to school officials and to file an annual private school affidavit with the county superintendent; or to use a public school independent study curriculum; or to enroll as a "satellite program" of an accredited private school. HSLDA helps parents navigate their state's educational codes and represents them in court if need be.
In 1993 Farris made his first bid for public office. He lost his campaign for the lieutenant governorship of Virginia, but he won 46 percent of the vote and is now considered a major power broker in Virginia's Republican Party. It was Farris's supporters who delivered the GOP Senate nomination to Oliver North last spring. Farris has also started a new political action committee, the Madison Project, which will recruit and help bankroll first-time Congressional candidates, not incumbents who already have lists of donors. At the Danville home-schooling conference, Farris's Madison Project brochures were stacked high on the entry table, along with a brochure to recruit volunteers for the 1994 reelection campaign of local Congressmember Bill Baker, a darling of the Christian Right.
Farris's Saturday morning address was vintage "family values" material. His primary purpose was to instruct fathers on their God-ordained duty to be the spiritual leaders of their families.
Farris said that "home schooling is the most effective means of spiritual discipline invented," and he stressed that the real opponent of home schooling is "the enemy of our soul," also known as Satan. To keep the devil at bay, home schooling fathers, not mothers, bear the brunt of the home schooling responsibility.
Since dads go to work and moms stay at home, dads have to delegate responsibility to moms. "But when you understand whose job it really is," Farris said, "there's a change in attitude."
Dads should be "deeply grateful" to their wives for performing two full-time jobs, that of homemaker and school teacher. To show their gratitude, husbands should insist that their wives take a daily break--Farris recommended a 30-minute outdoor walk. Husbands should install telephone answering machines so moms won't be pestered by annoying daytime phone calls. Husbands should take wives out to dinner "once in a while," and they should help with the housework.
Farris jokingly clued the audience in on what he calls his "lazy man's" trick: "When you first come home, wash the dishes for the first 30 minutes. Your wife will be so impressed, you can coast for the rest of the night."
Farris continued his litany, all to the effect that moms and dads have rigidly different roles to play in parenting. Moms should be more influential with babies and young kids. Dads are the ones responsible for preparing children for careers, marriage, and political activism. Here things got interesting. Farris explained that children, even teenagers, should not be allowed any boy-girl relationships until they are mature enough to consider marriage. To let kids have seemingly harmless friendships with the opposite sex is to encourage teenage sexuality and all the heartbreak that follows. Farris allows no dating, only courtship. Courtship is non-frivolous male-female socializing where the primary goal is to find compatible marriage partners. Courtship must be strictly supervised by both sets of parents and allowed only between fellow believers who are also physically attractive to each other. Farris noted how quickly young men would pass through college or career training programs if they were not allowed to marry (or have sex) until they could support a wife financially.
Stars and Stripes
One of the cornerstones of Christian Right thinking these days is the claim that America's Founding Fathers intended to create a Christian nation. The current leading purveyor of this view is David Barton, who runs a lucrative book and tape operation called WallBuilders, Inc. Barton has become ubiquitous on the Christian Right lecture circuit, and he was a featured speaker at the Danville home schooling workshop. Looking like a thirtysomething cross between Pat Robertson and Ross Perot, Barton wears a big, gaudy stars-and-stripes tie. He hammers his audiences with a high-speed litany of selected pro-Christian quotes from the leaders of the original 13 colonies. On an overhead projector, he flashes portraits of the Founders so fast that no one could possibly absorb his "information."
Yet the audiences are riveted by Barton's pitch. With charts and bar graphs, Barton shows a "correlation" between the Supreme Court's 1962 and 1963 decisions removing prayer from public schools and subsequent drastic statistical increases in teenage pregnancies, drug abuse, and the like. All of society's problems can be blamed on the fact that Christians did not fight back when the secular humanists pushed God and the Bible out of the public arena. The Founders wanted no such thing as separation of church and state. On the contrary, Barton selects quotes from people like William Penn to the effect that "only the godly shall rule." For the Christian Coalition meeting, Barton elaborated to the effect that only Christians should occupy elected offices--and he got a standing ovation.
Barton's pseudo-history and laughable abuse of statistics ought to be an embarrassment to those Christian Right leaders now trying to claim a mainstream mantle. But Barton's popularity should not be dismissed because it points to what motivates much of the movement's following. Here we have a group of people who mix separatism with the belief that Christians--narrowly defined --ought to have dominion over secular society. This is a movement that wants to have its cake and eat it, too.
In The Right Choice, Christopher Klicka suggests that conservative Christian parents should stay away from home schoolers of different political and religious persuasions. Yet for the most part, Christian homeschoolers are unwilling to just head for the hills and leave everyone else alone. Some Christian Right activists are fighting to remove liberal educational materials from the public schools while their own kids attend private or home schools. From the safety of their legally protected churches and private academies, this segment of the Christian Right is training a new generation to wage what they call "spiritual warfare" all the way into the next millennium.