A Brief History of Homeschooling

The modern homeschool movement began in the 1970s when John Holt, an educational theorist and supporter of school reform, began arguing that formal schools created an oppressive and rote classroom learning style designed to make children compliant employees. Holt called for parents to liberate their children from formal education and instead follow a method today known as “unschooling.” Soon after Holt’s arguments inspired the first homeschoolers, educational theorist Ray Moore added his voice, arguing that early schooling was detrimental to children and that children should be schooled at home until age eight or nine in order to give them a firm educational, psychological, and moral foundation. Moore’s 1981 Home Grown Kids quickly became popular and was often the first book homeschoolers read.

When Holt and Moore first began advocating homeschooling, educating children at home was legal in every state, but subject to varying regulations, which were sometimes quite stringent (for example, six states required parents to have teaching licenses . Early homeschoolers generally worked with their local school boards, meeting requirements and submitting their home education plans. In the early 1980s, Moore stated that in 80 to 90% of all cases, “local public school administrators and primary teachers … are understanding.” In those cases where homeschoolers faced challenges, organizations founded Holt and Moore offered help in mediating with local officials and, if needed, legal aid.

During the 1980s the tenor of homeschooling changed as a new wave of individuals entered the movement. These were evangelical and fundamentalist Christians engaged in culture wars rhetoric about public schools as “Satanic hothouses.” Given credibility by Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and initial support by Moore, these newer homeschoolers took an antagonistic outlook toward public school administrators and were unwilling to cooperate with public schools they saw as evil. It was at this point that the legal battles began in earnest as homeschoolers found themselves faced with newly uncooperative local public school officials and the negative feedback cycle that ensued as officials responded even more negatively when faced with litigation. Also in play was the fact that some school officials felt threatened by the growing number of homeschoolers. For all these reasons, the head of one secular homeschooling group call the mid-1980s “the look over your shoulder time.”

Homeschoolers responded to the changed situation by turning from the local level to the state level, petitioning state legislatures to change laws to accommodate for homeschooling. Homeschoolers fought among themselves over how much regulation the laws should contain; while some homeschoolers were comfortable with standardized testing and submitting curriculum plans, others felt that such regulation was oppressive. Regardless, the story of the legalization of homeschooling is really fifty different stories: some states never had any legislative change, some merely updated their laws, and others wrote completely new sections on homeschooling. The regulation of homeschooling today differs widely from state to state, with some states not regulating homeschooling at all and others imposing various requirements such as testing or curriculum approval. Regardless, by 1989 most states had made peace with homeschoolers, with only a few states holding out into the early 1990s.

The 1980s was also the time of what historian Milton Gaither has called “the changing of the guard.” By 1990, homeschooling was no longer connected to the liberal-leaning educational reform movement, as it had been in the 1970s, but rather to conservative religious ideas and the Christian Right. While Holt and Moore together essentially singlehandedly founded the homeschool movement, their books and publications serving as the lifeblood of the fledgling movement in its early years, their leadership did not last past the 1980s. Holt died in 1985, and Moore found himself marginalized by new homeschool leaders who did not consider him, as a Seventh Day Adventist, “Christian” enough. While religious and secular homeschoolers had worked together to form local, state, and national organizations and fight legal battles throughout much of the 1980s, this alliance began to fracture toward the end of the decade. In 1990, Moore appealed vainly to the homeschool community to remain united even as homeschool groups and organizations were increasingly explicitly Christian, often requiring the signing of statements of faith and excluding secular homeschoolers. First and foremost among the new leaders of the homeschool movement was Michael Farris.

Michael Farris, a homeschool parent and attorney, founded the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) in 1983. Early in the decade homeschoolers had generally worked together with local public school officials, aided as needed by the efforts of Holt and Moore. However, as relations with local officials became more tendentious (in part as a result of the entrance of more oppositional and less cooperative evangelical and fundamentalist homeschoolers), a variety of organizations, some religious and some secular, engaged in legal efforts on behalf of homeschoolers and worked to change state laws. HSLDA was one of these organizations, though most of the heavy lifting was done by others before it came into existence and while it was still in its infancy. In the early 1990s, HSLDA made a name for itself by bringing about the end of the last remaining holdouts.

Michael Farris used both his acclaim for fighting the last remaining legal battles and his connections to other influential homeschool leaders such as Greg Harris and Sue Welch to position HSLDA to become “the nerve center of a national movement infrastructure.” Aided by these other, newer homeschool leaders, Farris carried out a virtual coup of the homeschool movement and by the mid-1990s came to control both the movement’s networking system and its public image. Secular homeschool groups and organizations still existed, but they were overshadowed by the political power and organizational strength of HSLDA, which was aided by its commitment to hierarchical structure.

While early homeschool leaders had focused on liberating children from the constraints of formal schooling and freeing them to follow their interests, Farris’ goal and vision for homeschooling was different. For Farris, homeschooling was a tool for reaching a broader goal: a radical social and religious vision centered on a patriarchal family structure where stay at home mothers raise large numbers of children with the explicit purpose of launching their offspring into government, education, and entertainment industries with the intent of making the United States a nation based in Christian beliefs. Farris’ vision is augmented by a network of loosely affiliated groups often peddling an even more extreme ideology that holds that women should not attend college and in some cases actually endorses a full return to Old Testament law. Collectively, these groups and their followers leave little freedom for children and often place more emphasis on religious ideology than on actual education. Collectively, this ideology has come to be known as the Quiverfull or Patriarchy movement.

Meanwhile, homeschooling has continue to grow by leaps and bounds, especially as it has increasingly come to be seen as an acceptable educational alternative. An growing number of families have started homeschooling not for religious or pedagogical reasons but rather for individual pragmatic reasons, including concerns about bullying or the poor quality of local schools. This increasing diversity, combined with the advent of the internet, which has opened up information networks once controlled almost solely by Christian homeschooling groups, promises to change the face of the movement.

The information in this brief history is condensed from my master’s thesis, a study of a local homeschool community that also included background on the history of the homeschool movement as a whole. Scholar Milton Gaither reviewed my master’s thesis on his research blog. You can read that review here