Families in the United States haven’t always had homeschool freedom like we do today. Countless parents have had to take a stand for what they believed was best for their children in order for us to reach where we are now. Advocating for the rights of parents to direct the education of their children is the mission of the Home School Legal Defense Association. Mike Smith, homeschool dad, attorney, and cofounder of HSLDA, shares the following story from the early days of the struggle for homeschool freedom.
A New Beginning
Shortly after I came to work full time at the Home School Legal Defense Association in 1987, I arrived at the office on a Monday morning, and a phone call was directed to me from a mom who we will refer to as S. B. She related the following:
S. B.’s family, consisting of mom, dad, and three children (two girls and a boy), who had moved from a metropolitan area of Wisconsin to a small Dutch town in Iowa. They were all excited because they were going to have chickens, a horse, and a garden.
When school started, S. B. enrolled her three children in the public schools. Within the first several weeks, Chris, the oldest of the three children and the boy, expressed an extreme dislike for school, and it was a chore to make him go.
S. B. thought by volunteering to help in his classroom, she could make it more palatable. Much to her surprise, Chris had been labeled as special needs based on some testing done by the school before school started. He was in middle school and had never been diagnosed as having any learning problems. This had resulted in Chris being treated very cruelly by some of his classmates. Since he didn’t have any friends to start out with in school, he became very despondent from all the negativity surrounding school. Because he was not able to establish any friends, he felt all alone while trying to get through the day feeling the critical glares and hearing the sharp, piercing barbs of some of the students.
S. B. couldn’t get any sympathy or support from the school. “He’ll get over it,” they said. Well, he wasn’t getting over it, and to make matters worse, the principal told S. B. that they couldn’t have her coming to school with Chris anymore as it was disruptive to the class and appeared to be giving special treatment.
No Other Option?
Things did not get better, however, and S. B. had to physically take Chris to the school each day and walk him up to the school door to make sure he would go to school. Chris was doing poorly, and his morose temperament was not improving. To try to relieve the pain, she tried keeping him home, but she would get a call from the school telling her that Chris was truant, and he needed to be in school now!
Time went by and they reached the month of November—there was no improvement. S. B. had considered other options, like moving, but that wasn’t possible, and there were no other schools in the area, including no private school options, and she had not heard of homeschooling.
On a Friday night, after the family had gone out to eat, the previously happy-go-lucky Chris (before he moved to Iowa and entered school) tried to commit suicide. Fortunately, they were able to get him to the emergency room in time to save his life. S. B. knew then that Chris could not return to school on Monday, but she didn’t know where to turn.
A Possible Solution
She went to church on Sunday and shared a prayer request in her adult Sunday school class about her problem. After church, a lady who was in the Bible study pulled S. B. aside and told her she had a possible solution to her problem, but she would need to talk to her later by phone because of the complicated nature of the solution. This lady was a homeschooler.
At this time in the history of Iowa homeschooling, homeschooling was illegal and aggressively prosecuted by school districts throughout the state, unless mom was an Iowa-certified teacher and equivalent instruction was being offered. So, homeschoolers tried to exist underground, which was not always possible. HSLDA had numerous court cases in Iowa during this time period up until the law was changed by the legislature in 1991.
S. B. had that conversation that afternoon when she heard the term homeschooling for the first time. She knew that this was the only hope she had to save her child. But as her new homeschooling friend informed her, when Chris doesn’t show up for school Monday, she will get a call from the school wanting to know where he is. And if she tells them he’s not coming back to school and will be a homeschool student, she will immediately be threatened with criminal prosecution and maybe removal of Chris from her custody.
Hope for Homeschoolers
Her new friend then informed her of our organization and what we do, suggesting she call us the first thing Monday morning, which she did. We would normally require an application to be filled out before we could represent S. B. as her attorney, but we obviously made an exception.
Knowing it would get scary for S. B. with threats and with a court hearing almost certain, I wanted S. B. to demonstrate some conviction for the long haul. So, I told her she had been accepted as a member, but she had to do one thing for me. I told her she would have to call the principal and tell him or her that Chris was not coming back to school and that he would be homeschooled. She fearfully agreed. I told her to call me back as soon as she hung up with the school so we could start doing our thing.
Shortly thereafter, S. B. called back. She had spoken directly with the principal. I couldn’t wait to hear what happened. S. B. said, “Well, I spoke with the principal, and I told him that Chris was not coming back to school and that I was going to homeschool him.” Then there was this hesitation, and I asked her what he said. With a slightly trembling voice, she said, “He said that I would homeschool over his dead body.”
“Okay, what did you say, or did you just hang up?”
S. B. said, “I don’t know why I said this, it just came out. I told him that I hoped he had his life insurance up to date, and then hung up.”
In It for the Long Haul
I knew then we had a mommy bear that would do whatever it took to protect her cub. To make a longer story short, we were able to get the county prosecutor to leave the family alone because we found out that Chris was labeled special needs/learning disabled because he scored below the fortieth percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. This was the policy throughout the state of Iowa. Special needs students’ scores were not counted in the roll up of tests results for nationwide comparison of how public-school students did on standardized test scores. So, Iowa had figured how to be at the top of the nation at the expense of kids that never should have been labeled.
We were going to bring this up in court if they persisted in prosecuting S. B. for truancy. They left the family alone, Chris was homeschooled through high school and ended up going to the mission field. S.B. composed a poem that described her family’s ordeal.
The good news is that homeschooling is not as scary today and is legal in every state in some form. Without moms like S. B. willing to face prosecution/persecution to homeschool, we would not have the homeschool freedom we have today.
Because of the efforts of Mike Smith and the rest of HSLDA, families have far more homeschool freedom than they once did. But HSLDA is still working hard to spread awareness of the homeschool option. They keep track of state requirements for homeschooling, and they keep lists of local homeschool organizations available for those looking to join their local homeschool community. Visit the Home School Legal Defense Association to see how they can serve you on your homeschool journey!
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Mike Smith is a homeschool dad, husband, and cofounder (with Mike Farris) of the Home School Legal Defense Association. He graduated from law school in 1972 and began homeschooling his children in 1981. In 1983, he helped start the HSLDA in order to defend homeschool freedom in California in the courts and before the legislature. Today, his children are homeschool graduates, he is the president of the HSLDA, and he serves as the HSLDA lawyer for California, Nevada, and Puerto Rico.