Rebels of the best kind

As educational structures change, keep your eyes on the homeschoolers

By Joel Belz

What special interest group in American society right now may be most effective at lobbying the U.S. Congress? If you guessed that it's a band of educators, you'd be right. But if you picked the National Education Association-the very liberal union of public school teachers that is so active in public affairs-you might well be wrong these days. For according to Rep. William Goodling (R-Pa.), a 22-year veteran of Congress and chairman now of the influential Education and Labor Committee, the homeschoolers of our country, and especially those associated with the Home School Legal Defense Association, have developed more expertise than any other group in getting the attention of our nation's lawmakers.

It's a notable compliment. For although homeschooling has roots that go far back in our society's history, it's been only in the last 20 years that the idea has really caught hold in a modern context. Estimates are that between 1 and 1.5 million children are being educated by their parents at home. And there is evidence the movement may be growing as fast as 15 percent annually.

For all that, the idea is still distinctly countercultural. Homeschoolers still make up less than two percent of all learners nationwide. And the fact that homeschoolers tend to hold distinctive views on some subjects other than education often gives them a unique profile within the overall population. But that simply makes it all the more remarkable that this group should have extra clout in such an establishment place as Washington.

I have never been a direct participant in the homeschool approach-although my schooling between fifth grade and high school was something very close to what homeschoolers do. But I have tried to watch fairly closely as the homeschooling movement has exploded over the last decade.

Based on that observation, I would suggest that Rep. Goodling's high praise of homeschoolers for their ability to win points in Congress may represent no more than the tip of the iceberg-that it's only a precursor of other ways in which homeschoolers may more and more shape society far out of proportion to their numbers and acceptability to the rest of society.

That will happen only partly because of the effectiveness of the educational methodology these people are so committed to. It will happen even more because of the kind of people they tend to be, and the things they believe about matters other than education.

I just spent a weekend near Boston with several hundred leaders of the homeschool movement-and came away impressed on both those fronts. Arguments for the homeschooling approach are being increasingly bolstered by notable empirical evidence. And many of the people leading the effort are folks you'd find winsome and persuasive regardless of their cause.

If you're interested in details of that empirical evidence, you might turn either to a solid new statistical study of homeschooling by Brian D. Ray entitled Strengths of Their Own (check with the National Home Education Research Institute at, or simply by calling [503] 364-1490) or to a growing body of educational research being gathered by Donald Erikson, emeritus professor of education at UCLA. The details from both sources suggest it's time to set aside worries anyone has about the educational effectiveness of homeschooling; there may be good reason for others to start worrying about whether they'll be able to keep up with homeschoolers in the future.

I'm persuaded that a central reason for such accomplishments is simply that the people leading the way with homeschooling are the right kind of rebels. They're the kind of folks who would be leading the way in the nation's public schools if they had chosen that method of education or setting the pace in Christian and private schools if they'd elected to educate their children there. They are committed, feisty, and energetic people who tend to accomplish what they set out to do. They care little for the typically phony trappings of institutional education (like certification, accreditation, and school days per year) but charge straight toward the goal of mastering a subject. Homeschoolers' attention to internships and apprenticeships is another evidence of their practical sense of going straight for the target.

Do homeschoolers have problems? Of course. At the conference last week they sat for two hours while I detailed what I perceived as some of their weaknesses-and then, agreeing with most of what I'd said, they graciously asked for counsel on how to deal with those very problems. People with that spirit tend to be skilled managers.

I still think that the next generation will find the most effective experiments in education structuring themselves somewhere between the best Christian schools and the best homeschools. To that end, I hope the two movements will learn increasingly how to share their best abilities with each other.

But what I saw last week left me wondering whether the new structures might not end up being shaped more by the good rebels from the homeschooling movement than by the innovators from traditional schools.

Copyright 1999 World Magazine. Used by permission.