Sarah Hunt makes her living educating fellow Republicans about climate change. It requires the cool detachment of the well-trained lawyer that she is.
But for years she has also been building a life advising young women who have fled their sheltered, fundamentalist Christian home-schooling families in search of independence and opportunity. So when a call came from her friend and former Georgetown law school classmate Carmen Green last spring, she listened intently.
A young woman in Oregon was trying to escape her family, Green told her. She had been home-schooled and was eager to go to college. But the woman said her fundamentalist parents believed higher education wasn’t part of “God’s plan” for her. When she insisted, they took away her laptop and cellphone.
Hunt, 36, and Green, 29, know these stories all too well. Both had been home-schooled in fundamentalist families, both had willed themselves into new lives and both had broken with their parents in the process.
After the phone call, Hunt texted a lawyer she knew in Oregon. She had a checklist: The home-schooled woman,
Cornelia Hertzler, would need to collect proof of her identity, because confiscating identification was a common parental tactic. The lawyer had to be prepared. Some parents forcibly restrain their children. If Hertzler, 18, got out, she would need to get to a computer, perhaps at a library, to alert people. She would also need help finding work and housing, and eventually coaching on issues such as the SAT and financial aid, Hunt said.
This is part of the volunteer work Hunt and Green do. They do it for those in need and for themselves, channeling the hurt and anger over their pasts into advocacy.
Hunt and Green are members of a loose network of Washington-area home-schooled adults who are leading a quiet insurgency against what they say are the worst elements of home schooling, from educational neglect to physical and sexual abuse, to debilitating social alienation. Their efforts are scattered and their experiences varied, but a passion for change is what connects them.
Even some who say they’re glad they were home-schooled — people such as Daniel Silver, a 29-year-old Woodbridge, Va., college student — see room for improvement. It was Silver who alerted Green to Hertzler’s situation.
The regulation advocates want stronger oversight, methods to monitor the quality of the education and ways to protect children from the dangers that can unfold behind a family’s closed doors.
The oversight advocates are up against a lobbying Goliath, the Home School Legal Defense Association. For decades the organization, co-founded by longtime culture warrior Michael Farris, has preached the virtues of home schooling and parental autonomy, and Farris sees the call for greater oversight as “preposterous.”
This war in a relatively small education ecosystem — about 1.8 million students were home-schooled in 2012 — has raged for years, but HSLDA and its allies are fighting with conservative winds at their backs.
President Trump and a Republican-dominated Congress have started to roll back regulations, and private-sector education experiments are in vogue. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, an advocate of school vouchers and charter schools, also supports home schooling: In a 2013 interview in Philanthropy magazine, DeVos said, “To the extent that home schooling puts parents back in charge of their kids’ education, more power to them.”
Meanwhile, Christian conservative angst and anger have been intensifying. A survey last year by the Pew Research Center found that 41 percent of evangelical Christians say it is becoming more difficult to be an evangelical in the United States, up from 34 percent in 2014. For decades, such concerns have led some parents to turn their homes into redoubts of Christian values, home-schooling their children not only to instill those values but to shield them from what they see as a godless, overly secular world.
Hunt and Green recently formed an advocacy group to support home-schooled children, the Center for Home Education Policy. Their plan is to do legal work for those who want to attend public school. They also want to advise young adults on adjusting to a world to which they’ve had little exposure.
The center joins the ranks of other groups formed by disillusioned home-schooled adults: Homeschoolers Anonymous, which educates home-schooling parents about issues such as self-injury, mental illness and LGBT students’ needs; the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a research and advocacy group; and Homeschooling’s Invisible Children, which documents cases of abuse and educational and medical neglect.
What distinguishes the Center for Home Education Policy is its emphasis on the right of home-schooled children to have a greater say in their destiny, even when it contradicts their parents’ wishes.
Religious and secular home-schoolers point to the academic and professional success of many adults who were taught by their parents. When done properly, they say, home schooling works. Parents don’t need onerous rules and more paperwork.
By all rights, Hunt, Green, Silver and others are variations of those success stories. Hunt sailed through college and law school, and has a job that takes her all over the world. But she insists she is an outlier.
“Being home-schooled introduced challenges in my life, and I wonder how my life would have been different in a different situation,” she says. “You can look at a supposed success story, and you don’t know what it has taken for that person to get there.”
Hunt grew up in Annapolis, the oldest of nine. Her parents, Bob and Kathleen Hunt, belonged to a fundamentalist church where, Sarah Hunt says, women were told how to dress, what to say in church and whether it was appropriate for them to vote.
Hunt says her father, an avionics engineer and a graduate of the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, pressed her to wear a head covering after reading a Bible verse that he interpreted to mean that women should cover their heads. He also cautioned her against wearing jeans, telling her that it would distract men.
She spent much of her youth helping to care for her chronically ill grandmother. She changed her siblings’ diapers and taught them math. Her own schooling consisted largely of reading and watching videos from the Bob Jones University curriculum.
Her father made her turn over her outside babysitting earnings and scolded her for having a rebellious spirit, she says.
Bob Hunt says he doesn’t remember the details Sarah recalled but adds: “I don’t want to challenge her recollections. I’m happy to accept her word. We were part of a journey that affected her more than I realized.”
His daughter had a strong advocate: her college-educated grandmother, who encouraged her granddaughter’s independence and told Hunt that she had the ability to do anything. At 17, interested in politics but not ready to break from her parents or her past, Hunt enrolled at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where her family had moved. By then her father had reconciled himself to the idea that Hunt would possibly never marry or have children. Still, he was “enormously proud” of her college grades and encouraged her to apply for a Rhodes scholarship.
As a freshman, Hunt won one of the coveted opportunities for home-schoolers: an internship at HSLDA. She worked alongside Farris and lived her first real taste of independence. She and the other interns shared a rowhouse in Loudoun County, Va., and were assigned chores, but she came and went as she pleased and handled her own money.
When the internship ended, Hunt created a website for adults who had been home-schooled; years later she set up a similar Facebook page. It was then that she began hearing stories of child abuse, of parents who refused to obtain birth certificates and Social Security cards for their children, and about girls who had received less of an education than their brothers.
Offers poured in from home-schooled adults who wanted to help young women support themselves after they’d left their families. Hunt ended up advising dozens of women on what she’d learned about financial aid forms, renting an apartment and finding work. “What a person might take for granted in mainstream America — a debit card or having a cellphone — these young women might not,” Hunt says.
She wrestled, too, with her own anger and alienation. She straddled two worlds. There was the one she had grown up in, where she had learned that being a smart and outspoken woman was dangerous. And there was the world in which she was trying to make her way, where she was teased for her ignorance of pop culture touchstones such as “The Smurfs,” Madonna and “Mad Max.” So much was foreign, she says. The more she struggled personally, the greater the distance grew between her and her parents.
Hunt married and divorced young. She earned two law degrees and made a career in Republican politics. And she advised young women with similar backgrounds on how to move forward, away from their parents’ homes, away from early marriages that may have looked like a fast way out but in the end were traps. “Even if you have a good home-schooling experience, particularly if it’s a religious experience, you may have trouble with cultural navigation and the transition to adulthood,” she says. “My sisters and I were raised in a world that didn’t exist, where we’d be staying at home and living in an antediluvian world. Every day I wake up in a culture that’s not mine, and it requires me to be alert and aware.”
“I struggle with cultural dislocation every day,” she says.
Hunt has focused on HSLDA and what she calls its lack of concern about home schooling’s shortcomings. She has debated its attorneys on television, but she says that HSLDA hasn’t budged.
The Home School Legal Defense Association is one of Washington’s most effective lobbying groups. The Purcellville, Va.-based organization began in 1983, when parents faced bureaucratic and legal challenges to home schooling. HSLDA fought school districts and state laws in court, and within a decade of its founding, home schooling had become legal in every state. Its dues-paying membership is about 85,000.
Michael Farris, who in January became president and chief executive of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which litigates religious-freedom cases around the world, has been at the forefront of the nation’s culture wars. He aligned with the Moral Majority political movement in 1980 and, two decades later, founded Patrick Henry College to “prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture,” as the school’s website puts it. Patrick Henry is a landing place for home-schooled students, and most of the college’s early graduates — Green and Silver among them — were the offspring of those parents who had fought in the 1980s for the right to educate their children as they saw fit.
Farris, under pressure from home-schooling reform advocates, has acknowledged that abuse and neglect sometimes occur in home-schooling families. The group’s website now offers information on preventing child abuse, sexual abuse and domestic violence. But Farris insists more rules aren’t the answer.
“If every child in America must be monitored, then every preschooler must be monitored,” he says. “It’s a preposterous idea. A free society can’t be built on a distrust of families.”
Besides, Farris notes, public schools are highly regulated but not every child enrolled in them gets a good education. He also challenges the notion that home-schooled girls in fundamentalist Christian communities are held back by their families. Of 10 national moot court championship teams he has coached at Patrick Henry, seven had at least one female member. Patrick Henry students routinely get accepted to law school at the University of Virginia, Yale, Harvard or Georgetown, he says.
Farris, who is still on the HSLDA board, also started a program known as Generation Joshua, which trains young people to be part of the next generation of Christian leaders.
“Whose vision of parenting should control?” Farris asks rhetorically. “These self-appointed guardians, or the parents? Nobody in their right mind wants self-appointed guardians. The fact that they think it could be done better is subjective.”
Others who home-school for nonreligious reasons also object to more regulation. Karen Skelton, the board president and director of government affairs for the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers, says she cringes at news of abuse and neglect. But the horror stories unfairly tarnish all home-schooling parents.
“You end up enforcing greater regulation on the 98 percent of people who do well,” Skelton says. “Hard cases make bad law.”
In 2014, advocates of stricter home-schooling rules urged the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers to support a resolution proposed by Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax) that sought a study of the state’s religious-exemption law allowing parents to opt out of public schools. Skelton said the group’s members agonized over it. Ultimately, they decided not to support the resolution because it seemed contrary to the group’s mission. The legislation died in committee. The issue cost the organization some members, Skelton said.
“We are not in the business of taking away the right to home-school,” she says. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 1.8 million home-schooled students represented 3.4 percent of the nation’s school-age children in 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available. That was nearly double the 1.1 million students who were home-schooled in 2003. The center’s data show that most parents who home-school are from rural areas and have three or more children at home. Seventy-seven percent of respondents to an NCES survey cited a desire to provide moral instruction as a reason for home schooling.
Locally, during the 2015-16 school year 39,887 children were home-schooled in Virginia, 27,742 in Maryland and 425 in the District.
Home schooling’s recent history dates to the 1970s, when teacher and school-reform advocate John Holt suggested that parents teach their children at home without a fixed curriculum, a concept that became known as “unschooling.” Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, supported by James Dobson of Focus on the Family, took up the cause in the 1980s. Today, home-schoolers include parents who want to protect their children from bullying or racism, or who think the public schools can’t address their children’s academic needs.
The laws about home schooling are a patchwork across the United States. Some states require students to be assessed academically but don’t obligate parents to submit the results. Others don’t require parents to notify local officials that they intend to home-school. Still others allow any parent to home-school, regardless of their educational or criminal background.
Regulation advocates say that at a minimum, children should be seen annually by an outside authority figure and be academically assessed, with a record kept of what they learned. They also want a system to flag at-risk children. And many say that parents with a history of serious felonies shouldn’t be allowed to home-school.
Without oversight, advocates say, home-schooled children can be invisible and at risk. Hunt keeps a tally of reports of home-schooled children — 84 at last count — who have died after being abused or medically neglected. They include Hana Williams, a 13-year-old from Washington state who died in 2011 after years of beatings and confinement. She was adopted from Ethiopia and raised by fundamentalist Christian parents who had little contact with outsiders. Her death galvanized home-school reform activists.
In January, months after a 16-year-old home-schooled girl in Iowa died of starvation, the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper, in an editorial suggested legislators revisit a 2013 change in state law that allows home-schooled parents to keep their children at home without notifying anyone.
“All home-schooling parents should be mandatory reporters,” Hunt says. “You shouldn’t be able to home-school without oversight if you have criminal convictions that prevent you from being a public-school teacher.”
“It takes a lot of grit and courage to walk away. Even when there’s an entity to report to — social services, the FBI — it can be really hard to get people to understand the situation,” Carmen Green says. She and Hunt are eating sushi at a Dupont Circle restaurant, discussing their personal battles and the work they do with young women.
They learned of one another on Farris’s Facebook page. They became friends after meeting in the cafeteria at Georgetown Law. Green is petite with a gentle voice; Hunt comes across as a smooth D.C. professional, whether in a T-shirt and sweatpants or a black sheath with heels. Their stories have similar threads: smart girls who nurtured their own intellects and eventually their desires to move in a world larger than what they’d known. In a way, they are members of Farris’s generation of leaders who’ve gone AWOL.
Green was a voracious reader and taught herself algebra, geometry and trigonometry. For the 12 years she was home-schooled, she says, no one from the state knew what — or even whether — she was learning. Green says her mother was controlling; she had little contact with other children, and her parents expected to be able to veto her choice of a husband. After she graduated from college, her parents told her she would need her father’s permission before she accepted her first job. She hasn’t been in contact with them for years. Green declined to identify her parents for this story.
An article she wrote appeared in the Georgetown Law Journal in 2015. It asserted that children have a fundamental right to an education and that judges should accept petitions from home-schooled youth who want to attend public school when doing so would be in their best interests. She cited the case of Virginia resident Josh Powell, who was home-schooled and in 2008 begged local officials to let him enroll in public school. They said there was nothing they could do. He took remedial classes and other courses at a community college and eventually went to Georgetown.
“It’s unreasonable to expect children to be their own advocates,” says Green, a fellow at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “You need a forum where an outside person looks at the situation and says, ‘Is this person meeting educational outcomes? Are their needs being met?’ ”
Daniel Silver met Green while attending Patrick Henry, but his home-schooling experience was a stark contrast to hers.
A onetime debate coach, Silver is studying history at Northern Virginia Community College. His mother, Joan, a former public-school teacher, home-schooled him during his father’s job transfers to Alabama, Texas, England and Germany. His father, Brad, helped
him with math and science, and the entire family chose a curriculum for Silver and his two siblings. His parents gave their children standardized tests and provided a portfolio of lessons to state officials. Silver took classes at NVCC during high school; his brother attended James Madison University and studied abroad at Oxford; his sister also took college classes in high school and attended Liberty University.
At Patrick Henry, Silver said, he was dismayed at some of the stories he heard of students whose parents handed them books and expected them to teach themselves. He became politically active for a time, joining Generation Joshua and another organization for which he recruited teenagers to persuade senior citizens to vote for candidates who promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But the stories of educational neglect in home-schooling families tugged at him, and he started occasionally helping young home-schooled women, driving them to appointments and referring them to Green for more-complex issues. He unsuccessfully lobbied Virginia legislators to pass the 2014 religious-exemption law study. And after meeting Hertzler through an online fan group of a Christian radio program, he arranged for her to live with his sister’s friend in Seattle when Hertzler told him she wanted to leave her family.
“People need to realize that a lot of pitfalls that happen in public schools can happen in home schools as well,” Silver says. “There needs to be more accountability.”
He thinks it will be a while before Hunt and Green’s Center for Home Education Policy and advocates such as himself achieve the political muscle of HSLDA. “It’s really an uphill battle,” he says.
Bob Hunt, who has left the church he and his family belonged to when Sarah was young, says that it’s difficult to remember why he decided to home-school his children. Sarah, he says, was brilliant and learned quickly. She was a Rhodes Scholar finalist, and two of her siblings went to medical school and one to pharmacy school. Although he acknowledges that Sarah has valid concerns about home schooling, he thinks he and his wife made the right choice. Sarah and her father have recently reconciled, and they don’t debate the topic.
The Center for Home Education Policy has begun providing connections to a network of pro bono legal counsel to advise home-schooled children on their rights, asserting on its website that “homeschool students have legal and human rights that transcend the right of their parents to homeschool.”
Hunt is monitoring changes in home-schooling laws at the state level, but full-on advocacy will have to wait until the organization gets funding and is able to hire employees.
“It’s baby steps,” she says.
Cornelia Hertzler, the woman Green and Hunt assisted, moved to Seattle and took a job in an aerospace factory. She returned to Oregon a few months later. Until recently she didn’t know what the SAT was or how to shop for clothes. Home schooling, she says, “prepared me very little” for life outside her fundamentalist home.
She says her parents eventually accepted her leaving. Her father, Roger Hertzler, says, “We are Christians and we want to see our children follow Christ. When we see her making choices that do not reflect that, we are concerned.”
Hertzler says her parents want her home. But she is living with friends and hopes to start community college in the fall. She wants to major in sociology.
Lisa Grace Lednicer is a multiplatform editor at The Washington Post. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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