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Capitol Hill’s Home Schooled Insider

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Master Craftsman vs. Mandated Commodity

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C O V E R   S T O R Y

Capitol Hill’s Home Schooled Insider

     As the first generation of home schoolers finish their education, critics and supporters alike watch to see how these non-traditional students handle themselves in the “Real World.” But, the skeptics are continually silenced by the success home schoolers are achieving in every arena: from business to law, from journalism to politics.
     Home School Legal Defense Association’s Legislative Assistant Darcy Faylor recently had the opportunity to chat with Autumn Hanna, Policy Analyst for Mr. Tom DeLay, Majority Whip in the House of Representatives. The oldest of six children, Autumn, 25, grew up in Gainesville, Florida. She began home schooling when she was 12 years old, finished her course work by the time she was 16, and then spent the next two years doing missions work before leaving for college. Autumn received a music scholarship from Furman University where she played the cello in the college symphony orchestra and studied English Literature. After graduating from Furman University in 3 years with a B.A. in English Literature, she attended the University of Kentucky for graduate studies in social work.

Court Report: I understand that you are a policy analyst for Mr. DeLay. What responsibilities does this entail?

Autumn: I am responsible for social policy which includes religion, education, welfare, and family issues. Being a policy analyst entails advising the Congressman when legislation comes up in my issue area. As the Whip, my boss is responsible for garnering the votes necessary to pass legislation. I am also responsible for doing what we call “growing the vote” in my issue area. This means that I meet with outside groups, and we coordinate our communication efforts to gain grassroots support for the legislation.

Court Report: In terms of the social issues you work on, can you give us an example of something that you worked on recently?

Autumn: I think that the Title X (parental notification) language we were able to put in the Labor HHS Bill in committee was a great victory for conservatives. There are staff and Members of Congress who have worked on this issue for years, and this is the first time it has ever been included in the base bill. A great deal of credit for this goes to Representative Coburn, who spearheaded this effort as part of the Values Action Team, and to the outside family groups that worked hard to turn the necessary votes.

Court Report: What was your specific role in the Title X battle, and—for our members who may not be familiar with Mr. Istook’s Title X amendment—could you give us a little background?

Autumn: This amendment basically says that clinics that receive federal (Title X) dollars cannot give contraception to minors without notifying their parents. It is imperative that parents be involved in their children’s lives. If a child is taking any kind of medication, parents need to know about it. The federal government has no business dispensing birth control to children without their parents’ knowledge. My role was basically to work with Mr. DeLay and the Values Action Team on strategy and coalition building. We have another policy person in our office responsible for appropriations. She and I worked together to attend meetings with Members of Congress and outside groups, to keep our boss apprised of where we were in the process, and to advise him on what action was needed and when. If this bill had come to the floor before recess, we would have “whipped” it, which means doing a vote count to find out where other Members are on the bill, and who has what problems with it.

Court Report: This is not the first time that this vote has been attempted. Wasn’t there a similar amendment last year?

Autumn: Right. It has been defeated every time.

Court Report: So this is a significant victory?

Autumn: A very significant victory. Like I said, I know people who have been working on this for years. This was a team effort, and speaks to what we can do when we are focused and working together.

Court Report: What brought you to Washington, DC? Were you always interested in politics?

Autumn: My interest has always been in child and family welfare policy, specifically child abuse and foster care issues. Before coming to Washington, my interest extended to how those issues were dealt with on the federal and state levels. I went to graduate school for social work. I planned to work in DC eventually, but I ended up here a little sooner than I thought I would.

Court Report: A lot of home schooling families are very wary of social workers. What led you to pursue that profession initially?

Autumn: I believe firmly that the church has abdicated its role in terms of its involvement in social issues—addressing the needs of the poor and helpless—the “widows and orphans.” One of my goals for the future is to work to reconcile the church with their responsibility in terms of society’s disadvantaged, so that the private sector can reclaim what we’ve left in the hands of the government.
     I’m kind of an anomaly—being a social worker and a home schooler. Honestly, I’d rather be out on the street as a social worker, working one-on-one with kids, than anywhere else. But that kind of intervention is a panacea. It doesn’t necessarily translate into substantive change for those children.
     I have to think long term. I know that I’ll have a greater chance to actually make a difference here in Washington, and that is what matters most to me—being a conduit for real, lasting, positive change, especially as it pertains to abused and neglected kids.

Court Report: What do you find most interesting about working in the Majority Whip’s Office?

Autumn: The Whip’s Office has a different dynamic than any other congressional office. Being in charge of actually getting the votes necessary to pass the bill creates an atmosphere that is incredibly intense, exciting, and stressful. We operate in “crisis mode” a lot of the time when we are in session. With the Republicans holding such a small majority, getting the votes is hard work.

Court Report: What surprised you the most about your work?

Autumn: How complicated the process is. In terms of parliamentary procedure and how the system works, I was at a complete loss when I started here. It has been quite a learning experience.

Court Report: Has your work changed how you view our government and the way you look at the country?

Autumn: I’ve found it’s interesting that sometimes those outside the Beltway are unaware of the issues that are important to us here inside the Beltway. We’ll work really hard on one amendment in an appropriations bill and I’ll go home and say, “Mom, guess what! We did this and passed this,” and she’ll have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, yet it was a top priority for the family groups and conservative congressmen in Washington. I think that we on the inside need to be more aware of how our view is skewed somewhat by virtue of proximity, and how what we do is perceived by those looking in. In that sense, I guess my view has changed—it is no longer “they did this,” but “we did this.” I have a lot more passion about the issues I care about after pouring so many hours into them.

Court Report: How do you think that your educational background in home schooling prepared you for the job you do?

Autumn: Working here requires a certain degree of autonomy and a commitment to “thoroughness.” I think that home schooling prepared me for that. Self-discipline is an important character trait in any professional pursuit, and home schooling definitely helped me in that area.

Court Report: Has your home schooling background ever been an issue on the Hill?

Autumn: When our Chief of Staff originally hired me, it was as her assistant, and her previous assistant had also been home schooled. One of her requirements was that her next assistant be home schooled because she was so impressed with Stephanie’s work ethic and the quality of her work.

Court Report: Do you find the general reaction of other staffers to be positive as well?

Autumn: Definitely. I found that most staffers and Members of Congress are pretty impressed with the home schoolers they have met, and that in large part is attributed to HSLDA and the work that you’ve done here. Some people are wary of the concept. The first thing people talk about is the socialization: “Were your parents trying to indoctrinate you and keep you away from the real world?” They always ask questions like, “Did you go to the prom? Were you locked in your room at night?” It makes me laugh. I did go to the prom, and I definitely was not locked in my room at night.

Court Report: What advice can you give our members about political involvement?

Autumn: I don’t think people realize how much they are listened to, and how important it is that they communicate their views to their congressmen. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from different Members of Congress on various controversial issues, “Well, I just haven’t heard from my grassroots on this. I’m not going to go full force on this one—my people aren’t interested.” Your voice is important. Your vote is important. Work to elect officials who represent your values. It does count in the long run, and it does make a difference.