A Missiological Case Against Home Schooling

By Bill Mefford

Last week I pointed out the horrific story of the Turpin family in California who tortured their 13 children, leaving them physically, mentally, emotionally and most likely spiritually scarred for life. I never said nor insinuated that this family represented the families who choose to home school, but I did point out that the lack of accountability or oversight of home schools provides ample opportunity for people such as the Turpin parents to commit horrendous crimes against children under the veil of secrecy.

Indeed, in the course of several conversations about my post a friend shared a website run by a group called the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, whose staff have all been home schooled and who advocate for home school children to have a safe and open future. Further, this organization keeps track of children who have been hurt by home schooling through a blog called “Invisible Children.” I greatly appreciate the work of this organization and I hope this is a resource you will check out and possibly support. These are stories that desperately need to be heard as the isolation that too often accompanies home schooling only breeds more terrible results.

Once again, I do want to emphasize that I am sure the majority of home schooling parents are loving parents and in no way reflect the actions of people like the Turpins. I am friends with a number of families who have chosen to home school their children and they are loving families.

My problems with home schooling emanate from more of a missiological concern than anything. I believe home schooling inhibits a necessary social and political engagement on the part of Christians in their neighborhoods, and I am also deeply concerned for the political power that the home school lobby has in Washington DC.

But to show that I am not a typical armchair, limousine liberal sitting comfortably in the heart of the excellent Northern Virginia public schools (which really are very good), lecturing others on what they should do with their kids, let me share where we have been in the education process with our boys. As the parents of one former special needs child we struggled to find him the necessary resources he required to succeed in the classroom. Doing so in the public education system was never an easy task and required tremendous work, especially by my wife, but we are so glad we did.

When he was in the first grade we lived in an under-resourced area of Lexington where the elementary school was a failing school and where there was regular violence in the hallways and classrooms. What’s more, since we lived only a couple of blocks from the school I was able to walk my son to school every day and pick him up. While the affluent side of town had well-lit street signs and multiple crossing guards protecting the children walking to and from school, our school had no blinking street signs and we had one cop who sat in his car when it got too cold. I was nearly run over twice by cars that refused to stop.

Still, we kept him in public school, principally because we believe in public schools and we had a teacher who was fantastic, even with 30+ kids in her class, and a principal who had a vision to turn the school around. I was a stay-at-home dad at that time, working a couple of part-time jobs and writing a dissertation, but home schooling or private schools were never options for us. And the reason was simple: if we were to be fully invested in our neighborhood, then we must experience the bad with the good. We must share not only the hopes of our neighbors, but the fears; the laughter and the tears. This meant to us, and I believe it should mean for all families who desire to follow the biblical Jesus, that we are fully present in every aspect of community life in our neighborhoods and that most definitely includes the schools. We must live incarnationally. 

To the exiles who had been taken from their homes in Jerusalem to Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah wrote on God's behalf, "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf." (Jeremiah 29:7) As evangelicals seem to make up the majority of home schooling families they have once again turned Scripture on its head. If we were to write God's letter to home schooling evangelicals that reflects what is actually occurring it might read something like this,

"Rail against the perceived but unsubstantiated bias of the world around you. Falsely believe the world is out to get you and retreat and build Christian 'enclaves' where only you and your tribe benefit. The world is waiting to see if you will actually live out what you claim you believe. But while they wait, you must be busy advocating for your own welfare, even when - especially when - you have determined that your welfare is diametrically opposed to those around you. Separate yourselves. Build your 'Christian' enclave; a pseudo-'Christian' alternative reality that has all the cultural forms of Christianity, but without any of the substance of Christianity. And whatever you do, do not allow anyone in unless they adopt all of the cultural forms for which you are so fixated on. THAT is faithfulness to your version of Jesus." 

Yeah, a little harsh, but not too far off the mark. 

I just find it impossible to get anyone to care about what I am passionate about if I am not willing to care about what impacts them and their families every day. Home schools rob us of the joy of investing in our communities and sharing in the challenges and victories (and losses) that characterize life in our communities, particularly in regards to our public schools. Home schools rob us of the joy of incarnational missional engagement. 

I find that home schooling is disadvantageous to forms of missional engagement like evangelism. For someone who has little personal investment in the life of the community to then say they want to share with community residents a way of life that will transform them seems a little bit like a used car salesman selling used cars by day and then driving home in a brand new Cadillac at night. Something seems amiss. 

Further, the political power the home school lobby has in Washington DC is obscene. In 2012 the home school lobby, through its lobbying and grassroots efforts (which is entirely dependent on home schooling families), blocked the Senate's ratification of the United Nations treaty on the rights of persons with disabilities. The treaty was styled entirely on the U.S. law and ratification was pushed hard by such stalwarts as former Senator Bob Dole, who sat in his wheelchair in the well of the Senate chamber and watched as his former colleagues voted against his wishes. They did so because of the lies pushed by the home school lobby which had convinced its followers that ratification of the treaty would have allowed the United Nations to dictate rules for home schooling families in the US to follow and they also were afraid it would allow for more abortions. Yeah, I have no idea on that second one. The whole thing would be funny if it weren't so despicably rotten. 

And yes, there are, I am sure, a few home schooling families who find this to be as despicably rotten as I do, but it doesn't matter. The home school lobby, regardless of whether you agree with them or not, has power simply because you have chosen to home school because it builds their numbers and gives them a greater political base with which to operate. 

I am sure there will be many who will defend home schooling by pointing out the many dedicated families who serve their communities and who home school. Point taken. But incarnation is not achieved by donating money or hours to community programs or organizations. The incarnation - the missional example of Jesus - was only achieved by being present and sharing in the successes and failures, the hurts and the joys, the dreams and the fears of the community in which we live. 

And it is incarnationally living in the community that is not congruent with home schooling. 

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