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Disintegration in homeschooling; cultural changes affect groups’ godly mission

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An exhibitor at the home education expo in Chattanooga shows four children a printed wonder. The event is held every summer in Camp Jordan.

I worked for the homeschool newsletter Esprit before I was married, and a decade ago, as the father of four children, was handed the role of editor. I’ve been thinking lately about changes in American culture that are affecting the work of such publications and their sponsor groups. It is published by the Chattanooga chapter of the Tennessee Home Education Association, which is considering how to continue making itself valuable to families involved in Christian home education and family-centered living.

By David Tulis

As homeschooling goes secular, Christian groups face new opportunity

Curriculum fairs are closing down. Support groups are withering. Circulation among homeschool newsletters plunges. Moms get along without connecting with other moms. The online world beckons, as do co-ops that do your homeschooling for you.

When it started it was not legal, says Claiborne Thornton, president of Tennessee Home Education Association and a founding member.

“So the bar of entry into homeschooling was very high. You had to be committed *** — to a biblical worldview. Ninety-five percent of the people who started homeschooling were epistimologically self-conscious people that saw their responsibility before God as to train their children as in Deuteronomy 6. And that message was sound and solid and resonated.

“The bar to entry into homeschooling these days has gone down, and has done a complete flip.” One family told of being in a neighborhood where everyone homeschooled and had as their dinner guests members of a family who were not homeschoolers. The homeschooling family asked their guests if they did not home educate because they did not love their children. “That’s a total flip flop from being not clearly legal to being a little snobby about it,” Mr. Thornton says “— about being terribly snobby about it.”

Now books and materials are everywhere available. Curriculum needs are everywhere met. “The fellowship needs centering around organizations is gone. We don’t have support groups anymore. Basically we have co-ops and tutorials.” These forms are less homeschooling than “like small private schools,” Mr. Thornton says.

People now who want to homeschool think they can do so with no heavy lifting. One family at a homeschool expo could “whip out a credit card” and say, “We’ve decided we won’t want to homeschool anymore. Where do we get our curriculum material, and where do we send our kids?”

“As it becomes mainstream — as it should, as it is a successful way of people learning things — it can get diluted at the core and lose the distinctives of it, he said.

Buy off homeschooling

In 1994 HR6 would have let the U.S. threaten home education through the funding of state bureaucracies. When it became evident the attack would pass, homeschool families across the country jammed the congressional switchboard Feb. 17, 18 and 22 and shut down Capitol Hill, shocking congressmen in their home districts and bringing on Feb. 24 a stunning 374-53 defeat against what had been thought were innocuous lines in an appropriations bill.

Mr. Thornton recalls the HR6 tumult, and suggests the lesson the U.S. establishment learned.

“Clinton was in office; Robert Reich was the secretary of education. Reich leaves government and goes into a think tank out in San Francisco, and I believe what we have today in terms of virtual public schools came out of his think tank study work. It goes back to J.P. Morgan’s advice to Cecil Rhodes’ round table in the late 1800s. If you find something growing up in a society that is subversive of the controls you want to have, the first thing you do is you go study it, then you subsidize it so you can redirect it.

“What we’re seeing is the fact that the powers that be realize how horribly successful and how deeply committed we were with HR6, and they said, ‘We must stop this.’ And so the easiest way to stop it is to make it totally free, so free that nobody remembers why they started doing it in the first place. And subsidize it and subvert it. We are in the subsidizing and subverting stage.”

Growth in homeschool numbers

Public school numbers in Tennessee are steady at nearly a million for the past 30 years, with 80,000 in private schools, also a steady number. “There are only so many people who earn enough money to put money in a private school.”

But home education is growing, he says. Eight hundred families in the first eight years of THEA’s existence. Now there are 125,000 homeschooled children in roughly 40,000 families — in the state, he says.

As numbers grow, “it doesn’t look Christian anymore.” THEA might shift gears to help dads be better dads, and mom better moms. THEA could make a large argument not just about education, but regarding a more home- and family-centered ethos regarding God’s requirements in education, care of the elderly, care of neighbors, rebuilding of cities and neighborhoods — the sort of influence Mr. Thornton called “transformative.”

New THEA assignment?

THEA needs to get into discipling families, Mr. Thornton said, “to understand, embrace and accomplish the hard work of teaching their kids, training them so that they’ve got healthy set of morals and godly standards and know how to operate a Christian family in a secular culture. For the most part, we have moved away from that.”

THEA can hold up “gospel or biblical distinctives” as secular trends affect the home education movement.

Mr. Thornton says while home education has diluted into the embrace of small private schools, that’s not unalloyed bad news. Small schools can be “wonderfully successful” along the lines of “the one-room schoolhouse,” he says, to which the country should return to cure many of its ills (an unlikely prospect, he admits).

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