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This fall, conservative Christian homeschoolers will hit the campaign trail for George Bush and other candidates who support their political agenda. Why aren't liberal homeschoolers following suit?

WHEN A SMALL NUMBER of parents started dragging their children out of public schools in the 1960s in order to teach them at home, critics argued that the new "homeschool movement" would impede children's social development and create a bunch of isolated, introverted misfits.

But 30 years later, homeschooling has blossomed into a significant social movement. Figures released last month by the federal government's National Center for Education Statistics place homeschooling numbers at around 1.1 million students, up from 850,000 in 1999 though some estimate the actual figure is closer to 2 million. And as the movement has grown, homeschooling advocates have brandished reams of studies and reports claiming their children are just as civically and politically engaged as their non-homeschool peers, perhaps even more so.

This election season, one segment of the homeschool population aims to turn its students into a political force. Last February, a predominately conservative Christian homeschooling organization called the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) launched "Generation Joshua," a Web-based program that aims to teach civics by putting 4,000 homeschooled kids on the campaign trail. The students will be sent out in "Student Action Teams," ranging in size from 25 to 200, to do grass-roots campaigning for socially conservative candidates in hotly contested races throughout the country. Not only must these candidates be supporters of homeschooling, but they must also fall in line with other core values held by the HSLDA.

"We believe that some day homeschooled young people will help reverse Roe v. Wade [and] stop same-sex marriage . . . ," wrote HSLDA president Michael Farris in a statement that launched Generation Joshua. (Farris is also president of Patrick Henry College, in Purcellville, Va., which was founded by the HSLDA in 1997 primarily for conservative Christian homeschoolers.) One of the program's first campaign efforts in support of Nathan Tabor's bid for the Republican nomination for North Carolina's 5th Congressional District seat ended in a loss. But director Ned Ryun says that Generation Joshua will be campaigning for many other Republican politicians this fall, including President Bush.

"It's no secret that homeschoolers are excellent grass-roots workers," said Ryun, who called the Tabor race more of an "exercise" for the coming general election. "This is the first real attempt to get them organized in a cohesive effort in the right direction.

"Not all homeschoolers, of course, share his definition of the right direction. But as "George Bush's secret army" (as The Economist recently dubbed conservative homeschoolers) girds itself for battle, it's worth asking why an equal and opposing army of liberal homeschoolers hasn't risen up to meet them.

The conservative Christian homeschooler may have overtaken the children of free-spirited hippies in the public imagination, but not all homeschoolers are social conservatives or even avowed Christians. HSLDA, which claims about 81,000 members nationwide, represents fewer than 10 percent of homeschoolers. According to the recent report by the US Department of Education, "concern about environment of other schools" (cited by 31 percent) outranked the desire to "provide religious or moral instruction" (30 percent) as the main reason for homeschooling, though other studies have estimated that evangelicals make up as much as 70 percent of all homeschoolers.

Generalizing about the homeschoolers behind the statistics can be difficult. As New York University sociologist Mitchell Stevens wrote in "Kingdom of Children," his 2001 study of homeschoolers, "one would be hard-pressed to find a social movement peopled by a wider spectrum of faiths and philosophies." But Stevens divides the homeschooling universe into two groups: "believers" who participate in avowedly Christian homeschooling organizations, and "inclusives," an eclectic, ecumenical group that includes everyone from Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, and self-proclaimed "pagans," even devout evangelical Protestants, to left-liberals from the "world of alternative schools, progressive not-for-profits, food co-ops, and the occasional surviving commune.

"Unlike the believers, who were comfortable talking about the "Christian homeschool movement," Stevens writes, the inclusives have little in common beyond an interest in homeschooling and an uncertainty about just where their own movement begins and ends.

Stevens argues that the inclusives' ideas about autonomy and grass-roots democracy make it difficult for them to organize as effectively as their counterparts among the believers. Not that they haven't tried. Many state and local organizations currently advocate for homeschoolers on educational issues, and smaller local groups have made forays into political consciousness-raising and activism of the liberal kind.

One such political group is run by Caroline Bays in Watertown, Mass., who homeschools her two children, Austin, 14, and Suzanne, 13. Early last year when the Iraq war was looming, she founded a group of some 30 local homeschool students and parents called "Families for Justice and Peace." The group meets about once a month to discuss current events, take field trips, or to watch films like "Gandhi," "Amandla," and "Fahrenheit 9/11." The group sees their activity as primarily educational, though they've considered protesting the war together.

The Bays consider themselves "unschoolers," followers of a child-directed educational approach outlined by the early homeschooling advocate and Massachusetts-based educational reformer John Holt, who died in 1985. In his 1964 book "How Children Fail," Holt decried the rigidity and hierarchy of schools and declared that instead children should learn by following their own curiosity. Bays defines her role as an "enabler," not a teacher.

But as Holt's unschoolers were busy rejecting the top-down authority of traditional schools, another group of homeschoolers were challenging the authority of public schools in a different way. Thanks in part to bans on school prayer and reduced tax breaks for religious schools, conservative Protestants began joining the ranks of homeschoolers in significant numbers in the 1980s. According to Stevens, these Christian homeschoolers shared some of Holt's ideas. But for them the problem wasn't that schools had top-down authority, but that they usurped it from its proper bearers parents, who are granted that authority by God.

Founded in 1983 to "preserve and advance the fundamental, God-given, constitutional right" of parents, the HSLDA initially focused on providing legal resources for homeschoolers. But the watershed moment came in 1994, when the group mobilized around a federal educational funding reappropriation act in Congress that contained a clause which the HSLDA claimed could require that all homeschool parents be certified teachers a significant threat to the whole idea of homeschooling.

Soon the phones on Capitol Hill were jammed with calls from angry homeschool constituents, orchestrated primarily by the HSLDA. Other homeschoolers got worried too about the growing visibility of the HSLDA. A group called the National Homeschool Association assembled a coalition of 14 homeschooling groupsfrom the Islamic Homeschool Group of North America to the Jewish Home Educators to draft a clarifying amendment in response to the HSLDA's own amendment, which was co-written with Rep. Dick Armey of Texas and stated that "nothing in this act shall be construed to permit, allow, encourage or authorize any federal control over any aspect of any private, religious, or homeschool." Both the HSLDA and the NHA amendments passed. But it was the HSLDA's relentless phone campaign and their claim to have "saved homeschooling" that made the news.

But even as the HSLDA grew, the NHA's membership (which numbered only 200 in 1994) dwindled, until the organization dissolved in 2000. No other homeschooling organization has even tried to make a political stir on the national scene since then, focusing instead on the state and local levels where most of the issues that directly affect homeschoolers (such as whether they can participate on public school sports teams) are decided. Outside the HSLDA, the only national homeschooling organizations left today fall in the same vein as the National Home Education Network, an information-sharing network that aims to provide information and support for a "diverse network of homeschoolers," according to its mission statement.

NHEN president Laura Derrick emphasizes that the group doesn't take specific political stances beyond supporting parents' fundamental right to choose homeschooling. "It's a challenge to tell people why we don't take a stance on a particular issue," says Derrick. "[But] there's no way to be inclusive if you're constantly alienating different sections of groups.

"Meanwhile, the HSLDA has expanded its mission and unified behind the larger causes of the Christian right.

Amanda, a 15-year-old member of the Generation Joshua program from Winchendon, Mass., already sounds like a politician. (Amanda asked that her last name not be used, citing fears of being ostracized in her community). "Our nation depends on its citizens < of both present and future generations to fulfill their duties," she said in a recent phone interview. "There's no question our founding fathers built a strong foundation the question is, will I build it up with my actions, or tear it down with my lethargy?"

Amanda's rhetoric is no doubt bolstered by her participation on a debate team, and by her summer reading list (based in part on the Generation Joshua curriculum), which includes George Washington, William Blackstone, John Locke, and the Bible. "I can get involved in campaigns to elect righteous leaders who believe in the ideals I believe in: pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, and pro-homeschooling," she said.

But the linkage between homeschooling and those causes disturbs many mainstream and left-leaning homeschoolers."

I don't even want to see homeschooling and the HSLDA used in the same sentence," said Mark Hegener, a homeschooling advocate who publishes Home Education Magazine from his home in Tonasket, Wash., with his wife, Helen. "As far as I'm concerned, they are so very, very different."

Other homeschooling advocates agree. Larry Kaseman, executive director of a nonsectarian homeschool state advocacy organization called the Wisconsin Parents Association, believes homeschoolers must band together on homeschooling issues only. The homeschool movement "shouldn't get involved with other hot button issues that are divisive," he said in a recent interview."

We can't afford to be involved with [issues] that are separate from homeschooling," Kaseman said. "[It] weakens our ability to maintain a presence at the state level."

Even some socially conservative homeschoolers are unhappy about Generation Joshua's linkage of homeschooling and causes like opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

Rhetta Dunlap, a homeschooling mother in Vermont who's been in the leadership of many "inclusive" homeschooling organizations (including the Vermont Association of Home Educators), says she's pro-life but won't lobby against abortion as a homeschooler. "I'm on a lot of message boards, and that's a very big subject," said Dunlap. "A lot of [people] are talking about how HSLDA is tying abortion and [anti-gay] marriage to homeschooling. They are organized and they have that right . . . [but] I think the pro-life movement can take care of itself."

HSLDA president Michael Farris, however, doesn't think that the Generation Joshua campaign is dangerously mixing causes or even mixing causes at all. The Supreme Court, he points out, has said that the idea of parental rights is founded on "the traditional role of the family." By challenging the definition of a family, he continues, "same-sex marriage is a direct attack on the most important basis of homeschooling freedoms."

NYU's Stevens sees the lack of any national political organizing among liberals and other "inclusive" homeschoolers that approaches the visibility and clout of the HSLDA as symptomatic of the left's broader problems.

"This is really emblematic of a larger story about idealist politics on the left and right," he said. "Conservatives love Washington. It's `Politics is great, sign me up, let's go, let's figure out how to get our voice heard!' But what the left has done since the 1970s is to talk about how the system is tainted."

The religious right, Stevens says, has made involvement in politics an admirable goal for young people. "Look around. Where are the idealist people on the left going? Are they dreaming of becoming Senate aides, stuffing envelopes on 17th Street?"

But Hegener of Washington state says that the loosely organized "inclusive" homeschool movement is the essence of democracy.

"It's messy," he said. "But . . . this is democracy in action. Top-down hierarchies are not democracy in action."

Steve Grove is a writer living in Cambridge 

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