Homeschoolers keep the faith

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

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.

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.

HSLDA recently launched a project called Generation Joshua that offers high-school level civics lessons through an online curriculum, provides opportunities to join a voter-registration drive, and coordinates student volunteers to help in local races where a conservative Christian candidate is in a close contest.

Generation Joshua's director, Ned Ryun, says that positioning students in campaigns is a great way for them to learn - even as they reap benefits for the candidates. In the 2002 elections, Mr. Ryun sent teams of high school and college students to seven tight races in Missouri. With moms as chaperones, these students phoned conservatives to get out the vote. Six of their candidates won.

Programs with conservative Christian ties, such as Generation Joshua, the Student Statesmanship Institute, and TeenPact want to ignite a passion for politics in young people.

They take a captive audience - homeschoolers - and offer them camaraderie with other like-minded students, a sense of purpose, and a feeling that they can make a difference. It's a potent combination.

Homeschooled kids are also a good fit for politics because they have more flexibility to pursue a subject in-depth than their public-school peers, says Elissa Nowland, who completed her high school degree at home in Andover, Mass., and is an alumna of TeenPact.

Jared, Elissa, and Hope Hodge of Waltham, Mass. - homeschoolers who all went through TeenPact - praise the system that educated them and take exception to the criticism they sometimes hear raised by the media - that they are being led like unthinking sheep into political activism.

They point out that homeschooled students score above average on standardized achievement tests, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. They also tend to do as well or better than conventionally educated students on the SATs. And high school graduates have seen increasing rates of acceptance at prestigious colleges.

In some cases, they also hold opinions that fly in the face of the mainstream that surrounds them.

"It's too hard to be conservative here [in Massachusetts] for us not to be thinking," Elissa says. "Conservative Christian homeschoolers are big on critical thinking, so they wouldn't be led by the nose."

Scott Somerville, staff attorney for HSLDA, insists that the organization exists simply to promote homeschooling. "It's not that the religious right is using homeschoolers to advance their agenda," he says. "It's that homeschoolers on both the left and right oppose the government's interference in teaching their kids."

No one is saying that Mr. Farris and his compatriots don't have a right as individuals to promote their viewpoint in the halls of Congress. But critics are troubled by the idea of taking an organization - the HSLDA - that purports to support all homeschoolers and making it the feeder system for an evangelical Christian political network.

For some homeschoolers, however, it's all about democracy in action. "Belonging to organizations that line up with our beliefs is to be encouraged," says Treon Goossen of Concerned Parents of Colorado, a home-school support group. "But it can't replace personal activism and the right to one's own viewpoint."

For Hope and some other homeschoolers, the politically active path they're on is one they see as beneficial for the country as a whole. It teaches critical thinking and encourages an acute awareness of current events - crucial requirements for the citizens of a healthy democracy.

"As Americans, if we don't take advantage of what our democracy offers, then we will lose it," she says.

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