For eight days in February, the home schoolers of this nation gave Congress a lesson on the power of grassroots politics it is not likely to forget.
It began when Congressman George Miller (D CA-7) introduced an amendment to H.R. 6, an enormous education reappropriations bill, which would have required all teachers in America to be certified in each and every course they teach. This provision would have hampered public schools-especially small public high schools. It would have seriously interfered with America's private schools. But for home schools, the Miller provision was the political equivalent of a nuclear attack. America's home schoolers astonished Congress with a political counter-strike that was quick, effective, massive, and decisive.
Added shortly before the Education and Labor Committee was to return the bill to the House, the Miller amendment (Section 2124(e)) stated:
ASSURANCE.-Each State applying for funds under this title shall provide the Secretary with the assurance that after July 1, 1998, it will require each local educational agency within the State to certify that each full time teacher in schools under the jurisdiction of the agency is certified to teach in the subject area to which he or she is assigned.
This amendment alone would have raised serious concerns for home schoolers. But coupled with the new definition of schools, it was deadly. The word "nonprofit" had been added to the definition of schools in H.R. 6, changing the definition for the first time since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was enacted in 1965.
§ 9101 (11) The term 'elementary school' means a nonprofit day or residential school that provides elementary education, as determined under State law.
§ 9101 (20) The term 'secondary school' means a nonprofit day or residential school that provides secondary education, as determined under State law, except that it does not include any education beyond grade 12.
The addition of the word "nonprofit" to each of these definitions eliminates any ambiguity as to whether private and home schools were included in the definition of school.
Concerned by the implications of the Miller amendment and the new definitional language, Representative Dick Armey (R TX-26) offered an amendment to protect home and private schools from the certification requirement. Armey's amendment read:
Nothing in this title shall be construed to authorize or encourage Federal control over the curriculum or practices of any private, religious, or home school.
This amendment was rejected in committee.
It was at this point, on February 14, 1994, that Representative Armey's office contacted HSLDA for our analysis of the Miller amendment.
Based upon review of the Miller amendment, the definitional language, and our eleven years of defending home schools against legal challenges from local education agencies, we knew that it was imperative to add protective language to the bill. It is beyond dispute that local school authorities believe that home schools and private schools are under their jurisdiction.
The danger was seriously exacerbated when the Education Committee rejected Dick Armey's original amendment. If the intent of Congress was directed exclusively at public schools, what was the justification for rejecting Armey's original amendment? By rejecting Armey's original amendment Congress created a legal presumption that it intended to force home schools and private schools to adhere to the standards in this legislation.
We immediately contacted Representative Miller's office to express our concern and ask for clarifying language. However, Mr. Miller's staff told us flatly that he would not agree to any amendments to § 2124(e). With a vote only nine days away, we had no choice but to contact our members.
By the evening of February 16, 1994, "Urgent Alert" letters had been mailed to HSLDA's entire membership list. The letter summarized the situation and outlined a six-step plan of action for contacting Congress and spreading the alert to friends and neighbors. Also contained in the mailing was a list of the representatives whose offices did not need to be contacted because they had already assured HSLDA of their support for protective language.
People were amazed by the ability of the home-schooling community to respond quickly and in massive numbers to the threat posed by H.R. 6. There are three central reasons why the home-schooling community was able to respond in this manner.
1. HOME SCHOOLERS WERE ORGANIZED.
The day after Bill Clinton was elected we started getting an enormous number of calls from people who were panicked that Clinton would work to revoke home-schooling freedoms. Our response was: "this is not a time for panic but a time for preparation."
Frankly, the greatest danger posed by a liberal president is not the actions which are likely to be undertaken by the administration. The greatest danger is that one or more congressmen will be emboldened by the atmosphere created by a Clinton presidency to attempt legislative maneuvers that would be unthinkable with another in the White House.
We wanted to be prepared for any attack coming from the education establishment and their friends in government. So in January 1993 we created the Congressional Action Program (CAP) to assist "just in case" a federal legislative emergency arose.
But the real preparation and organizational work has been done over the past 10 years by state and local home school groups who have worked to advance the cause of home-schooling freedom. Home School Legal Defense Association and the National Center for Home Education simply built a "federal response network" to function effectively with the existing state and local home school groups. The decade of preparation which proceeded this alert was essential in our collective ability to respond quickly and effectively.
2. HOME SCHOOLERS WERE EDUCATED.
If we had been required to spend a long time explaining to the home-schooling community why teacher certification was a bad idea, we would have been dead in the water. The first major threat ever to endanger the home school movement came from the laws in a number of states which required all teachers (including home school parents) to be certified.
One by one the states removed these laws. The last three states to relinquish certification laws created home-schooling legends. North Dakota, Iowa, and Michigan were the famous triumvirate of evil for their steadfast insistence on teacher certification laws. Nationally, almost all home schoolers closely followed the Bismarck Tea Party, the DeJonge case in Michigan, and the multiple tribulations faced by parents in Iowa.
Fighting these battles not only served to educate home schoolers on the substance of the teacher certification issue, it also gave them valuable experience in the intricacies of the political process. For example, home schoolers were well-schooled in the principle that all calls and letters must be polite. The overwhelming feedback we have received from Congress is that home schoolers were incredibly polite, yet very firm.
Moreover, most home schoolers were sufficiently politically sophisticated to refuse to be misled by the tactics of the aides of Congressmen Miller, Ford, and Kildee. These and many other congressional offices tried to convince callers that the threat to home schooling was non-existent.
The reality is that Congress had conducted no hearings on the Miller provision. There was no evidence that a federal teacher certification rule was a good idea for public schools. It is probable that Miller and others never thought about how their language would affect home schools and private schools. But their absence of subjective sinister intentions is wholly irrelevant. What mattered was the legal meaning of the words employed in the Act.
In all of the cases challenging teacher certification laws which we have handled, there has never been a law which was originally written to apply to home schooling. In every case, a law written generally to apply to all teachers ended up forcing home schoolers into compliance. There are often unintended consequences to legislation. And most home schoolers were smart enough to not be misled by condescending assurances.
Moreover, many of the Congressmen making these assertions had not read the relevant provisions, nor had they read the corresponding definitional sections, nor did they have any understanding of the home school law in their states. Indeed, in his speech on the floor of the House, Congressman Ford claimed that home schoolers in Michigan were guilty of violating the compulsory attendance law. Most home schoolers knew better than to be led astray by the assurances of "intent" made by people who publicly decry home schooling as nothing more than truancy.
3. HOME SCHOOELRS ACTED ON THEIR BELIEFS.
Tens of millions of people were concerned about homosexuals in the military. Similar numbers of people held strong views about NAFTA. Every American was directly affected by the Clinton budget and tax increases. Yet, according to some congressmen, many congressional offices received more calls on H.R. 6 than on these other three issues combined.
Many other people called on H.R. 6 besides home schoolers. But everyone recognized that the lion's share of the activity came from home schoolers.
Most Americans complain about various proposals in Congress. However, until those complaints are directed into meaningful political action, very little will be accomplished.
On Capitol Hill there is now a standing joke: "If you want to defeat a bill on providing Foreign Aid, call it 'The Foreign Aid and Home Schooling Regulation Act.'" I have received a number of requests to "crank up" the home school network to pass or defeat many pieces of legislation. As deeply concerned as I am about a broad range of political issues, the HSLDA network is reserved for issues that involve one of three things: (1) bills which directly or indirectly involve home schooling; (2) parental rights; or (3) religious liberty. Home-schooling rights are built upon the twin foundations of parental rights and religious freedom, so we must be very vigilant in these areas as well.
But I must confess that I long for the day in which freedom-loving Americans, affronted by the continual erosion of their liberties in other arenas, will demonstrate the same degree of seriousness displayed by home schoolers protecting their educational liberty. It is my belief that those of us who believe in traditional moral principles have not because we ask not.
You all are doing a tremendous job. Teach your children and neighbors to be organized, educated, and to vigilantly take action on their beliefs, and our country will be much improved.