These Families Are Opting To Homeschool — Without White Christian Nationalism | Sojourners

These Families Are Opting To Homeschool — Without White Christian Nationalism

Photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash

When Angela Jordan started homeschooling 21 years ago, she was Abeka all the way.

It didn’t take long, though, for Jordan to realize that Abeka — the conservative Christian curriculum popular in homeschooling and in private Christian schools — presented a take on history intent on downplaying racism, white supremacy, and sometimes just plain facts.

“I learned really quick that [Abeka] history and science are not okay for my family because it is always whitewashed,” Jordan told Sojourners.

In the ensuing years, the mother of eight has watched more Black families like hers turn to home education and create curricula that reflect African American culture and experiences rather than the white-leaning history available to her two decades ago.

On Jordan’s monthly homeschool-focused podcast, guests explain that their homeschooling decision originated from lack of representation: their children feeling left behind academically, stuck in a one-size-fits-all system, or learning history from a Eurocentric perspective.

Jordan, who lives in Greer, S.C., had the same concerns. She worried her son would have been discriminated against and unnecessarily put on ADHD medication in public school. Her twins, adopted when they were 3, were labeled “unable to thrive academically” at the time. (She said they no longer have any learning disabilities.)

Homeschooling, to her, feels like freedom.

“They don’t have to fight for an academic seat at a table in homeschooling,” Jordan said. “They get to thrive and be in their skin, and grow up in that safety net with parents who are going to be their advocate.”

Recent U.S. census data backs the growing diversity Jordan sees in her own home education community.

In March, a study of homeschooling during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that Black homeschoolers jumped from 3.3 percent of students to 16.1 percent. The number of Asian and Hispanic homeschoolers nearly doubled, to 8.8 and 12.1 percent of students, respectively. The questionnaire asked how many children in a household between kindergarten and 12th grade were “homeschooled, that is not enrolled in public or private school.”

Homeschooling as a whole increased too. In the 2019-20 school year, 5.4 percent of all U.S. households with school-aged children were homeschooled; the number rose to 11.1 percent in 2020-21.

The homeschool movement had grown rapidly between 1999 (homeschooling became legal in all 50 states six years prior) and 2012, but had slowed in growth since reaching 3.4 percent in 2012.

Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), a nonprofit organization that advocates for safe and responsible homeschooling, released a statement in September contesting the research method of the census findings — suggesting that the number of total homeschooled children post-pandemic is not expected to change significantly once the pandemic ends.

Because of the variety in definition, a point-blank question on homeschooling may not be the most helpful, Chelsea McCracken, CRHE’s research director said in the release.

“There’s a good chance the Census numbers include parents who intend to enroll their children in remote learning and other school-based programs, as well as parents who say they intend to homeschool just because they’re frustrated with all the options,” McCracken said in the release.

Jessica Dulaney, CRHE communications director, acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic led to at least some increase in homeschooling, and that the organization is seeing greater diversity in who’s using their resources.

While some parents choose to homeschool for ideological reasons, such as religious beliefs, and others have children who can’t be in a traditional classroom for a variety of reasons, others start homeschooling after negative interactions within the school system.

According to federal data, Black students and students with a disability in public schools are twice as likely as white students to be suspended, and Black girls are over five times as likely to be suspended as white girls. Lack of diversity among teaching staff is also an issue. During the 2017-18 school year, 79 percent of elementary and middle school teachers were white, 7 percent were Black, and 9 percent were Hispanic.

“If a kid is in the public school system and ther’re being bullied because of their race, sometimes the best option is to remove them,” Dulaney told Sojourners. “The same thing for children who experience homophobia in the classroom.”

Evangelical roots in home education

Karema Akilah arrived at the homeschool curriculum fair in Harrisburg, Penn., and felt out of place even before walking inside. The parking lot was filled with RVs and 12-passenger vans, out of which came ultra-conservative homeschooled children and women in floor-length dresses. Almost everyone at the fair was white.

Akilah already felt ostracized from some members of her Black community who chastised her for educating at home when they marched to ensure school desegregation only a few decades earlier.

“Then I step into the homeschool community and I don’t see myself reflected,” Akilah, a mother of six, said. “What I wish I had had was a community of Black and brown families that educated their children the way I did.”

Homeschooling in the United States started as an anti-authoritarian 1970s movement to promote creativity in learning. But by the 1980s, it had morphed into a crusade for parental oversight and religious freedom driven by evangelical and fundamentalist fervor.

Backed by the persistence of lawyer Michael Farris, who started the Home School Legal Defense Association in 1983, homeschooling was legalized in all 50 states in 1993.

The communities that developed from most of the 90s through the mid-2000s tied education closely to white conservative Christianity, often promoting “classical” education based on Western thought and history. Leaders of the movement often compared that era’s students to the Hebrew Bible’s Joshua who led the Israelites to conquer the Promised Land, in hopes their children would revitalize a vision of Christian nationalism in America. Students from that period include I Kissed Dating Goodbye author Joshua Harris, whose parents were integral leaders of the homeschool movement.

Farris is now the board chairman of HSLDA, the chancellor emeritus of Patrick Henry College (which he also founded), and president of Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group. In October, The New York Times reported that Farris worked to help Republican state attorneys in their effort to overturn the 2020 election.

Akilah, a former public school teacher who currently lives in Atlanta, started homeschooling with a rigid framework that mirrored a typical school day, but soon realized she felt exhausted and defeated, while her children were apathetic.

About seven years ago, she opted to switch to a self-directed learning model, letting her children guide their education. For her, this is rooted in decolonized parenting — Akilah calls it giving kids “a voice and a choice” as opposed to asserting her will. Self-directed learning typically involves asking children what they’d like to learn, and then planning activities and educational resources around those areas of interest.

Not long after, she started the Genius School, a self-directed learning community across four states and three countries that intentionally recruits Black and brown families.

Jordan came up with a similar solution to the lack of diversity in her homeschool community. For years, her family was the only Black representation in their homeschooling co-op, so she started her own.

It has since morphed into the United Community of Homeschoolers Unlimited (UCHU), an official homeschool association in the state of South Carolina.

“When I started, I got a lot of pushback. It was not pretty, but being the person I am, I said, ‘Nope, there’s a place for me,’” she said. “If I can’t sit at your table I’ll build my own.”

She hasn’t shied away from confronting racism in the homeschool community head on — the first series of her podcast focused on whitewashed curricula and co-ops.

“I lost a lot of contacts in the homeschooling community because I was speaking out about this evident racism that was happening in the homeschooling community,” she said. “White people that I thought would be okay and say, ‘Yes, I understand,’ they came back and said, ‘Angela, you’re causing problems, stirring the pot.’”

Her tenacity paid off: UCHU has 300 homeschooling families across South Carolina — up from 203 at the start of the pandemic — and Jordan said she receives daily calls from Black homeschoolers looking for support.

For Mac Pickard, the shift away from more conservative homeschooling has been gradual, but no less important.

The 15-year-old, who is nonbinary, grew up with evangelical-oriented curricula such as My Father’s World and Apologia science, which teaches six-day creationism.

Pickard and their mother, Carole — both of whom are white — have had to get creative about finding alternatives, especially since they don’t always share the same views.

Pickard started taking dual enrollment classes at Blue Ridge Community College in western North Carolina in August, where they’ve met a fair share of homeschoolers. Still, the surrounding area doesn’t tend to be particularly accepting, and Pickard’s friend group is, for the most part, divided between homeschool friends and LGBTQ friends.

No national statistics exist for the number of LGBTQ homeschoolers. Anecdotally, Pickard said the community seems to be growing — if only because coming out as LGBTQ is more acceptable in general. A number of Facebook groups for homeschooling parents of LGBTQ children — one of which Carole joined about a year ago — provide support and resources for inclusive education materials.

The community may be small, but Carole Pickard emphasized that Mac can always count on support from the people closest to them.

“Mac’s dad and I are in agreement that we’re going to support Mac 100 percent no matter what, even if we don’t see eye to eye,” she said.

Wider than the margins

It’s long been tempting to reduce marginalized homeschooling communities to a blip in the system of white evangelicalism, but this thinking can minimize their contributions and the greater picture, according to Lisa Puga, a Ph.D. candidate in childhood studies at Rutgers University.

Puga spent nearly two years interviewing Black homeschooling families in Philadelphia, determining that for those families, homeschooling was an act of protest against inequities in mainstream education. They saw their choices as a form of power rather than a side story to whiteness.

Kyle Greenwalt, an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University, agreed that the historical lens could use some widening.

“There’s always been a lot of diversity,” he said of the homeschool movement. “It was Christian, white evangelicals that did the hard work of getting it legal, so they became the face of the movement, but there were always liberals off the grid who were homeschooling.”

Jordan has watched multiple parents find new hope when they realize they can guide what their children learn. She said it’s “blessing her heart.”

“Those of the African diaspora have always been taught at some level [that] we take our kids to someone else to be educated because we’re not capable. I’m here to say: Yes, you can educate your own children.”

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