Because We Thought HSLDA Cared about Us

A recent comment by J on Homeschoolers Anonymous’ crosspost of my post about the Josh Powell story caught my eye.

In general, I appreciate your efforts to lobby HSLDA to be more sensitive to issues like this, but I think it’s important to remember that HSLDA provides legal services and is bound by certain ethical and legal duties that could prevent it from expressing sympathy for Josh Powell. If HSLDA represents a party involved, they have an ethical responsibility not to make public statements that could be construed as admissions against their client’s interest.

In other words, J argues that HSLDA couldn’t respond with compassion to Josh Powell’s story of educational neglect because the organization has a legal duty to protect its members—including, presumably, Josh Powell’s parents—at all cost.

(I would make several points here. First of all, because of the nature of Virginia’s religious exemption law, Josh’s parents broke no rules by not educating him, and there are therefore no charges being pressed, so even if Josh’s parents are HSLDA members HSLDA is not currently representing them in some sort of suit. And second, being someone’s lawyer doesn’t mean you can’t make general statements about something being morally bad—being OJ’s lawyer, for instance, didn’t mean you couldn’t say murdering your wife was a bad thing to do. I think what’s actually stopping HSLDA from expression compassion int his sort of situation is their lobbying efforts in favor of unrestrained parental rights.)

Regardless of whether or not J is correct, I think his comment brings up an important point—HSLDA defends the interests of homeschool parents, not the interests of homeschooled children. This is actually something I’ve discussed before:

HSLDA protects homeschool parents’ interests and homeschool parents’ rights, not homeschooled children’s interests or homeschooled children’s rights.

This fact should be especially troublesome to anyone who was homeschooled, to those who like me grew up on the HSLDA literature our parents received and grew up on the HSLDA talking points our parents recited. HSLDA cared about our parents, but the organization didn’t care about us. Think about that for a moment. HSLDA was there to defend your parents’ right to homeschool, no matter what. HSLDA set about systematically eliminating safeguards that would have ensured that homeschooled children receive an education, and safeguards that would have protected homeschooled children against abuse. HSLDA has opposed even laws that would have simply required that your parents register as a homeschool with the state board of education, so that someone would at least know that you existed. HSLDA set about putting all of the power in the hands of your parents, but during all that time they never gave a second thought about you.

Again, J’s response might be “well, duh, they’re lawyers, that’s how it works.” Even if that’s true, that in and of itself is a problem. That the largest homeschool advocacy group in the country can’t even bring itself to condemn educational neglect perpetrated by homeschool parents, and instead defends homeschool educational neglect as in and of itself something that’s just fine, that should be a red flashing light that something is wrong.

But there’s more here than that, at least for me.

I never saw HSLDA as simply my parents’ lawyers (and yes, my parents have been HSLDA members since I was small). I also saw them as my defenders. I thought HSLDA cared about me. I really did. I’m sure this is true of many other homeschooled children growing up in HSLDA member families—we didn’t see HSLDA as simply lawyers at all, we saw them as our protectors and heroes. When I met Michael Farris when I was sixteen, I couldn’t have been more proud and excited. So for me at least, there is a sense of betrayal. I thought HSLDA cared about me, not just about my parents, and their response to Josh Powell’s story is simply one more confirmation that they didn’t.

And to be honest, that may be part of why this bothers me so much.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • AndersH

    I think the HSLDA get a lot of slack from people for the same reason that a lot of people give various levels of rape apologia slack. The “of course everyone’s against x” where x can be rape or child abuse. Who wouldn’t work for the interests of children (or defend rape)? Why, those people would have to be monsters, certainly not anyone who’s respectable!
    Unfortunately, as we know, perfectly normal, “respectable” people can promote policies that is ruinous for some or most people.

  • Christine

    I would honestly say that there is a bit of a conflict of interest here. HSLDA is not in a position to advocate for homeschooled children. Given the modern laws, HSLDA is only going to be called in if there is a question that the parents aren’t meeting the children’s needs. There won’t necessarily be any grounds for this, but simply “homeschooling” won’t get them in. It’s going to be homeschooling without oversight or homeschooling in questionable circumstances. This doesn’t mean that people who do those things aren’t meeting their children’s needs, but having the same person argue both sides is obviously wrong.

    • Ruth

      Yes, it would be a legal conflict of interest for HSLDA to represent both parent defending the right to neglect a child and and the child alleging injury or neglect. As callous as it appears, the comment to which Libby Anne responds is more or less correct — though as rightly pointed out, it appears from the article that HSLDA was commenting and did not have the Powell parents as clients.

      HSLDA represents parents and their rights to do whatever they wish to their children without any accountability or government oversight. The child is not the client and HSLDA’s duty of loyalty and zealous representation runs to the parents, not the children. As Josh’s situation indicates, no one represents the child’s interest unless the child obtains his or her own counsel or the government steps in to do so. The sad situation here is that homeschooling children themselves, as Libby Anne reports, are fed the line that HSLDA is their defender when that is definitely not the case. (Might be interesting to explore whether there are State bar association ethical rules being violated there in how they are promoting their services and confusion about who is the client.) Further, if a HSLDA staff person or attorney learns of abuse and neglect, would he or she under applicable state child protection laws, have a duty to report? Regardless of legal and moral duty as human beings to protect children, I suspect they would not report abuse and neglect because they so ardently defend the right of parents do to whatever they wish.

  • Mel

    I don’t think the HSDLA can care about children. They’ve set and defended a worldview is so mind-bogglingly extreme and insular at the same time that caring about children – or allowing teens to have a voice – would blow their organization apart.

    Here’s my understanding of the basic ideas and the basic outcomes.

    Main idea one: The only unit of government is the nuclear family.

    Main idea two: The nuclear family is responsible for making all decisions that pertain to them.

    Main idea three: Within the nuclear family, a hierarchy occurs of Father –> Mother –> offspring. (Not sure if this is an HSDLA requirement, but it tends to be a cultural expectation in many families)

    Main idea four: Any interference with the nuclear family unit is an affront to basic human dignity and rights and should be fought to protect western civilization.

    This is a terrifying prospect to me. My parents taught me that I have a responsibility to all other people. I have a right to participate in a civil government and a responsibility to be sure that the government is protecting all citizens especially the poor, the alien, the young and the old. You care for your family and watch out for your neighbors.

    • gimpi1

      I think you’re right, Mel. I think the need for a strict chain-of-command in families makes the HSDLA dangerous. They have called active child-abusers heros. They support absolute lack of accountability for parents. They seem to regard children as property, to be used as the owner desires.

      We know some families are abusive. Most of us want to protect kids from familial abuse. We know some families can’t educate their kids. Most of us want to assure all kids get a basic education. We know some families want to isolate their kids to a dangerous degree. Most of us want kids to grow up with experience of the wider world. HSDLA disagrees with all of those goals, in the name of parental rights. I would have to question: what kind of parent wants the right to abuse, keep ignorant and isolate their kids?

      • Betsy

        “what kind of parent wants the right to abuse, keep ignorant and isolate their kids?”
        Sadistic creeps, but in most instance I don’t think it’s the issue of them wanting the right to do these things but the fact they don’t think what they are doing IS any of these things.

        An abuser who grew up in an abusive home being taught it is normal and necessary to inflict immense pain in order to get obedience often does not think their doing the same is abuse. In fact, having never seen an alternative that “worked” on them, they may well believe it is necessary. This is common truth for the “spanking as a last resort” people, and it’s truth at least some of the time for people who use it more inclusively (maybe even up to some of the extreme cases).

        Ignorance is a little less clear for me, but I’d imagine there’s another similar misunderstanding. It seems the ones I’ve met at least who leave their children ignorant of certain things do so intending to teach them the “truth” (as they believe they know it). Usually it’s not an attempt to keep them from learning, but to keep them from believing “lies” or to avoid evil knowledge.

        Isolation usually seems to be done to “protect” children. Normally those I’ve seen who tend to isolate their kids intentionally do so to keep them away from “bad influences” and “evil” people in the world. Again it’s not trying to harm the child so much as protecting them – and after all, what parent doesn’t want to protect their children?

        Of course there are some sadistic parents who want to abuse their kids, keep them from knowing anything that might let them free themselves, and isolate them from influences that might convince them “hey, it’s NOT normal/right to suffer this abuse.” I’d even go so far as to say there are quite a few like this leading some of the more destructive movements. The ordinary parents who follow them, though, seem more often to be misled than malicious.

      • gimpi1

        I think you’re correct about misled, Betsy. However, if you are being taught that the best thing you can do for your kids is to tell them falsehoods, try to keep them from understanding the difference between a fact and a belief and teaching them to fear anyone different from them is a form of protection, you need to understand that you, the parent are being deceived. Parents don’t get a free pass, in my book, if they are mislead. They – and we all – have a basic responsibility to vet the information we are given and those that provide it. If it doesn’t pass the smell test, we need to move on, even if that’s hard. Parents trying to guide their kids need to do that more than others, I think.

      • Betsy

        Definitely agree with you there. Never meant it as an excuse, simply an explanation. In other words they’re doing bad things that need to be stopped, but not because they’re bad people (even though their own teachings would claim they are).

      • Baby_Raptor

        People who buy into Fundamentalist Christianity.

    • Gretchen1

      Many years ago, I knew a family with four sons. The father got 5 votes, the mother got 2, and the kids all got ONE each. Ergo, daddy ALWAYS won in a “family vote”. Sad.

      • kisekileia

        By that system, it would be possible for the father to lose, but only if everyone else was unanimous against his opinion.

      • The_L1985

        And why would you be, after a while? Once you realize that “dad always wins,” it’s easy to become resigned to that.

  • John Kruger

    It is really odd to me that they would not just distance themselves from that kind of homeschooling, since it is a pretty bad example that puts bad attention on them. I would think it could be a lot easier to advocate for good practices than pretending the bad ones are not so bad. If they are going to defend every negligent parent that does not bother to educate their children while also defending the practice as a whole that can sometimes produce good results there is no way it can end well.

    Heck, as a lay person I would be glad to allow even comparable results in home schools, which seems very possible given proper regulations and oversight, but if they establish their policies as apologetics and misrepresentations to hide failures and justify what they are doing regardless of reality it makes me want to shut them down. It would not take much pushing at all by them for good and responsible policies for me to want to leave them alone, but they seem totally unwilling to do that in even extreme cases.

    • Space Blizzard

      “It is really odd to me that they would not just distance themselves from that kind of homeschooling, since it is a pretty bad example that puts bad attention on them. ”

      I think the problem is that HSLDA has taken an eminently sensible and rational idea- homeschooling is a viable alternative to public school and parents should be able to do it if they’re able to- and turned it into political dogma- homeschooling is *always* better than public school in every situation and the right to homeschool is a sacred law that must never be challenged under any circumstances. This stance is only realistic in a reality where parents are 100% trustworthy and always act in their children’s best interests and so HSLDA must pretend that we live in this reality even though we manifestly don’t.

      I would really love to be a fly on the wall during private conversations between these people. Do they actually believe the things they say, or on some level do they know they’re talking out of their asses?

      • gimpi1

        Well said, Space. Those alternate-reality folks are creating all kinds of problems for those of us in the “reality-based community.”

      • Trollface McGee

        Yes exactly. It’s the cases they choose to represent and the issues they choose to address. No advocacy organisation takes every case that’s referred to them. They could refuse to represent cases that deal with parental abuse/neglect. They could choose cases with the kids as the clients. They choose not to.
        They aren’t really a “home school” organisation, they support unlimited parental rights, nothing more and the more publicity these kinds of stories get, the better.

      • Susie M

        That’s exactly it.

        And yes, eventually you make yourself believe anything. I believe it originally stems from the best of intentions. However, when people start freaking out when parents send their kids to school (even Christian schools), we have a problem.

  • BobaFuct

    HSLDA isn’t just a group of lawyers…they are a registered lobbying group. I don’t think this has anything to do with their “obligations” as lawyers. A lobbying group for fundamentalist homeschooling parents isn’t going to say anything bad about its constituency or contrary to its agenda. That would be like AAA saying that speed cameras make the roads safer and drivers should just go slower if they don’t want tickets.

  • MyOwnPerson

    They probably think they are defending homeschool children’s best interests. In their ideology, parents are the best thing for children, all the time. So the best thing for a child is to be under the instruction and influence of their parents as much as possible. The logical educational choice in this construct is homeschooling. Parents always know what’s best for children; combine that with visceral anti-government emotions and you end up with even with the idea that even abusive parents are better for children than government, i.e., government/public schools. In their world it’s parents vs. government and “who gets control of the children”? Their black and white thinking leads them to believe that there are only two options for safeguarding the interests of children, and that they are at odds with one another. I don’t think they see children as full human beings. It’s a little like the private vs. public sector “who gets control of the money” argument. As a former homeschooler, all I can say is what a load of bullshit.

    • smrnda

      I get that where homeschool promoters are always talking about the ‘grubby government’ getting its evil grubby hands all over kids. The point that I tend to see that government officials are subject to at least some kind of oversight, checks and balances and can be removed if they fail in their duties while parents only become accountable if they behave in an obviously criminal fashion tends to just be lost in ‘how can you not just be innately disgusted by government?’

    • Levedi

      “you end up with even with the idea that even abusive parents are better for children than government”

      So true! And so wrong. I grew up hearing bogey man stories about the evil CPS stealing children from their loving parents. They terrified me as a kid. Now I’m getting licensed to be a foster parent and seeing the other side of the coin. There are bad foster parents and social workers out there – no one denies that. But there are some amazing people working 24/7 to save kids from unimaginable abuse. I love my foster agency.

  • Arakasi_99

    Part of what complicates this issue is that it appears to me that the majority of problems with homeschooling don’t rise from abuse and neglect. The problem is that the ability to teach is a skill and it is a skill that not everybody has.
    I freely admit that even though I did quite well academically, I struggle to find a way to explain some concepts to my 7 y.o. son in a way that he can grasp them. Part of is that he is a more visual thinker than I am, and part is I have internalized basic operations so well, it is an effort to break them down to their basic components (e.g: a question as simple as “what is one half of one quarter” is obvious to me: 1/2*1/4 = 1*1/2*4=1/8; but he doesn’t have the background yet to set that up. After going over it for several minutes, he now understands how to do that operation, but it is completely devoid of context – he doesn’t understand why that operation works, just that it does.)
    If I were to try and homeschool him, I would probably give him a substandard education. I could try to educate myself on how to teach the subject, but that depends on the time and attention that I can devote to it, as well as the resources that I have available and my ability to grasp the subject. So, no matter how good my intentions are, I would probably do my son a disservice by homeschooling him. And my ability to look for extra help is completely dependant upon my ability to realize that I am falling short in some aspect of his education.
    If I had a lesson plan to teach to and my son was regularly tested so we knew where he and I needed to focus our efforts, I could probably do a decent job; but HSLDA`s lobbying has made that easy to just skip. And if I was tired and trying to keep track of 4-5 children instead of just one, then I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t take the easy way out

    • Arakasi_99

      I forgot to include this…
      There seems to be some part of the American psyche that says that any individual is more qualified to do any job better than someone who gets paid to do it. Therefore, parents can teach better than teachers, your grammy knows more about your child’s health than your pediatrician, and your preacher knows more about evolution than every PhD in every biology department in the country.
      Those years of education really do make a difference.

      • Gillianren

        Oh, that one bothers me. My boyfriend’s mother seems to believe it, and she gives me a ton of advice about what to do with my son’s health, then gets mad when I tell her that I do my own research, including talking to his pediatrician.

      • wombat

        “My ancient wisdom is better than your newfangled ‘research’”.
        I get it all the time from my mother. Frustrating.

    • centaurie

      RE: the fractions problem….Pie (charts) and other stuff can help maybe? In this case; you take a quarter of a pie and you divide it in half, what do you get, etc. That’s how my elementary schoolteachers explained it to me. I had a hard understanding the abstract stuff too. At the start at least, after a while I didn’t need the visual stuff anymore.

    • Conuly

      Can you order your next pizza unsliced? Cut it in half, state that each piece is 1/2. Cut it again into fourths, ask what fraction each slice is (1/4). State the slices are too big and you want to divide each one in two, that is, cut each slice in half. Count the slices, arrive at 8, as what fraction each slice is (hopefully the practical example will have allowed the kid to arrive at the answer 1/8, but I know from doing fractions with my niece that you can expect quite a lot of seemingly pointless repetition before it is automatic!)

      Lather, rinse, repeat every time you have anything that can be divided into equal portions – pie, sandwiches, boxes of cookies (if he understands fractions as part of a set). I also try to state every time we discuss fractions that a fraction is a type of division problem, but I don’t know if that helps or not! It helped me as a kid when I realized that.

      • Arakasi_99

        I’ll give it a shot next time he makes pizza (it’s one of the 3 meals that he knows how to make by himself) to reinforce things. I think I did manage to get the point across by using 16 pennies, but I’m not sure if he managed to understand the concept well enough to apply it in different situations.

        As it was, I took almost half an hour to explain a concept to him that his teacher could have probably done in 5 minutes. I’m not good at explaining the basics and I quail at the thought of his academic success depending on me getting a lot better at it really quickly

      • Christine

        I used the pennies trick with a friend of mine whose mom had a problem similar to what you describe – understands math well enough, but not well enough to teach it. It’s useful for more advanced stuff too, so if it works, stick with it, because you can keep the same trick for longer.

      • Conuly

        The concept that cutting 1/4 in half will leave you with 1/8 is pretty unintuitive for a lot of kids. That’s why you need to review it so much! I’m not entirely sure that a teacher with multiple students could explain it adequately to all of them in just 5 minutes (and of course, many heavily conceptual programs, such as Everyday Math, might take longer).

        Your kids teacher might be able to do it better, due to greater experience and, of course, a teacher’s manual that spells out how to do things, but that doesn’t mean it will be *faster*. (And then, they might not be able to do it better either. Most teachers are adequate, some are excellent, but sadly, some just aren’t very good. The advantage of schools over homeschooling, here, is that you get a new teacher periodically.)

      • Conuly

        Of course, it occurs to me that before he can get on board with that idea, he really has to grasp that the larger the denominator, the smaller the fraction. This is something that looks so stupid to kids – 1/8 is less than 1/4? Are you NUTS???

        If he still is shaky with that idea, you want to go ahead and strengthen it. If you google “fraction activities” or “classroom fraction games” you’ll see the sort of hoops teachers apparently jump through to make the idea concrete for their students, and no matter how good the teacher is I *know* some of the kids don’t get it the first time around. Fractions and our notational system are really weird for kids.

      • The_L1985

        It made perfect sense to me, but that’s because I took piano lessons.

        Knowing that two eighth notes make up a quarter note, and two quarter notes make up a half note, helps a lot when “quarter” becomes 1/4 and “half” becomes 1/2.

        That, and my teacher explained the denominator as the number of slices the cake was cut into at the beginning. This also helped me, because you can cut anything up into equal pieces (maybe Play-Doh?) and see that the more pieces you have, the smaller those pieces have to be.

      • The_L1985

        You can also try Play-Doh. Lots of households already have the stuff, and it’s easy to split up–especially if you start with a cylinder or “snake” instead of a ball. Use a plastic knife to cut it into the slices, and see if that helps.

        I also know that Cuisenaire rods help some kids to grok fractions, but depending on your budget the price may be out of your reach. The “introductory set” is all you’d need for 1 kid, though.

        You could combine the 2 ideas and use different-colored Play-Doh “snakes” instead of Cuisenaire rods, or maybe make your own rods out of thin dowels. The “Equivalent Fractions” activity from the site I linked above may be the most helpful idea from it in your case.

    • Levedi

      So true. Have you read The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind? It’s an excellent call for reform issued from within the world of the American church – the author is a professor at Wheaton.

  • Barbara

    I have read most of what you’ve written about HSDLA, and after this post, something has just struck me.

    I don’t think HSDLA actually advocates for the right to homeschool. I think they advocate for the right /not/ to school. Period.

    Their true position is that parents ought to be able to decide whether or not their children receive any sort of education, and that parents who decide against education are right and just. But it would seem too extreme if they came right out and said that, so they couch it in terms that are somewhat socially acceptable.

    It’s the only explanation. If “school” were truly a part of the equation for them, then they would not defend the Powells or anyone like them.

    • Karen

      HSLDA has to put a positive spin on any criticisms because if the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia (or any other state) hear enough of these problems, they will agitate their legislators to pass laws that the HSLDA doesn’t like. For example, the state may once again require oversight.
      On a related note, my daughter was born in the late 70s in Virginia, and I knew several women who were interested in homeschooling their children. In those days, if I recall correctly, the homeschool parent/teacher had to have a bachelor’s degree in order to be allowed to educate their children at home. It was difficult to get permission to teach your kids at home. There was also a lot of oversight to make sure the kids got the education they deserved. The HSLDA has clearly had a major impact on these laws over the past 35 years.

  • Sally

    There’s a difference between keeping quiet in order not to create a conflict of interest Vs speaking out to the public in support. To me the problem isn’t that they’re bound not to object to the Powells, to me the problem is that they’re making a special point of excusing them.

  • Karen

    Reminds me of the NRA. No matter how many bad acts are committed with guns, registered or not, the NRA blocks all attempts to legislate what they call “gun control.”

  • Susie M

    “My defenders and protectors.”
    I know. Me too.

    I was home schooled in California, which awesome. We have great laws here. The state requires you to register as a private school and record classes, grades, etc. There’s actually an excellent home school “school” network that gives parents and students accountability. I love it.

    The thing no homeschooling parent wants to admit is that homeschooling is freaking hard. You have taken the entire scope of your child (ren)’s education onto your shoulders. You probably need help. And honestly, homeschooling should be an educational method that’s re-evaluated every year–not some enclosed lifestyle.

  • Hilary

    I just read this at RHE’s blog, about Christians supporting public schools. One thing that was brought up in several comments was the Evangelical/conservative attitude of homeschooling as the only Godly option.

    http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/christians-and-education-inequity-an-interview-with-nicole-baker-fulgham

  • Levedi

    I think you’re right, LA. And I think that the HSDL reflects a louder and louder ideology in parts of the American church which sees children as extensions of their parents and is therefore incapable of recognizing that there might be times when children have legitimate needs and rights that are in opposition to their parents’ will. After all, my arm is not more important than me. No one would deny that I have a right to tattoo my own arm, make it carry a pen, etc. It’s my arm. It is not me, it is an extension of me.

    I think about how offended my parents, especially my dad, are by the idea of children’s rights. Children don’t have rights because to recognize their rights we would have to recognize that they don’t belong entirely to their parents. Giving kids rights gives them autonomy and autonomy leads to things like self-will. And self-will leads to unbelieving children.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I’m training to be a foster parent and the constant buzz is the reminder that your kids have rights. They have individual, personal rights that are protected by law and must be respected by their guardians. Last night we covered discipline and I went home and cried for two hours. Because hearing about a disciplinary approach to children that recognized their autonomy, that fostered their ability to think and act as individuals with valid wills and desires of their own was like having grown up in an iron lung and then hearing about the polio vaccine. (I stole that simile from David Sedaris btw.)

    If HSDL saw children as the wards of their parents, not as the possessions of their parents, their whole approach would have to change.

  • Rosa

    I’ve been thinking about the socialization discussion we had before, and thinking that one of the reasons homeschool parents – most of them, not just the fundamentalist ones – shrug off the question of socialization is that in the larger meaning of “learning to share the values and mores of the culture” socialization is exactly what they do NOT want.

    It’s probably not possible to have completely different values than the mainstream and also have easy social graces in a wide variety of situations without a lot of work, because the behavior stems from the values and experiences.

    But homeschooling advocates aren’t very clear on this, at least not in public. So there’s a lot of doublespeak about how their kids are both different from everyone else and yet totally comfortable with everyone else. And it leads to exactly this kind of doublespeak – the denial that there IS a problem even when the problem is clear. Because HSLDA is actually advocating for a very strange position that parents have absolute control over their children and no responsibility to follow standards that mainstream society considers the basics of decent parenting. But they can’t say that, so they appeal to values (freedom, good education) that they are actually not interested in at all.


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