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Homeschoolers keep the faith

For some homeschoolers, political causes shape daily lessons. Is this education - or indoctrination?

By April AustinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 23, 2004

At age 7, Jared Gamble's parents took him to a rally to protest the expansion of a greyhound racetrack in Lincoln, R.I., into a gambling casino 10 minutes from their home.

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But the Gambles' participation in the protest that day wasn't just about their moral and civic opposition to the casino. As a homeschool family, they also considered the rally an academic field trip designed to teach their son about democracy in action.

Jared, now a 16-year-old homeschooled junior, doesn't remember much of that day, but his own political activism is beginning to take root.

Over the past year, he's worked in Massachusetts to promote a traditional definition of marriage and even traveled to Virginia to volunteer for a week on the campaign of Jeff Frederick, a Christian candidate, who won election to the Virginia House of Delegates for the 52nd district. These activities, which Jared logs carefully, count for credit toward his high school diploma.

Homeschooling gives parents the opportunity to transmit values and political beliefs to their children to a degree that public schools generally cannot. Class schedules for homeschoolers are also more flexible, allowing time for students and parents to volunteer for political and social causes.

Until recently, most homeschool families' biggest lobbying efforts were expended on preserving their right to homeschool.

But as the movement has matured, one group has branched out into a more overtly political mission: urging evangelical Christian homeschoolers to volunteer for conservative causes and serve in political campaigns.

They've smoothed the path by offering - for credit - programs in civic involvement and government. It's not illegal, but this activism-for-academic-credit has raised eyebrows and drawn the ire of families who don't share the evangelicals' world view.

Of course evangelicals - despite the fact that they attract much of the media coverage of homeschooling - do not have a lock on the movement.

In fact, a 2000 survey by the National Opinion Research Center found that the religious affiliation in homeschooling families breaks down to 36.2 percent Catholic, 22.4 percent evangelical Protestant, 20.7 percent mainline Protestant, and 6.9 percent other religions.

Yet despite the presence of Muslim, Unitarian- Universalist, and gay and lesbian families in the homeschooling world, "conservative Protestants have quite handily come to dominate the politics," says Mitchell Stevens, professor of education and sociology at New York University.

In some ways, homeschooling families are united by one overriding political concern: keeping government at arm's length so they can enjoy the freedom to teach as they see fit.

Because homeschoolers are such a minority (between 1 and 2 million children are educated by a parent), the need for cooperation from all sectors is great, says Laura Derrick, a homeschool mom in Austin, Texas, who is active with the National Home Education Network.

Still, the public face of homeschooling is distinctly white, upper-middle-class, evangelical Christian.

While rival groups might like the same degree of attention, they simply do not have the reach or political clout of an organization like the Home School Legal Defense Association.

Four years ago, HSLDA's founder Michael Farris also launched Patrick Henry College - a conservative school designed for homeschooled students that emphasizes political leadership.