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Right And Left Joined Forces In Fight To Legalize Home Schooling

Home-schooling might still be seen as a fringe movement, but today, it's equally outlandish to suggest that home-schooling should be illegal. A few decades ago, that wasn't the case. MoMo Productions/Getty Images/Ozy hide caption

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MoMo Productions/Getty Images/Ozy

Home-schooling might still be seen as a fringe movement, but today, it's equally outlandish to suggest that home-schooling should be illegal. A few decades ago, that wasn't the case.

MoMo Productions/Getty Images/Ozy

"It was like the days of the one-room schoolhouse," reminisces home-schooling advocate and First Amendment lawyer Michael Farris. He's talking about a few short decades ago, the time when he and his wife raised their 10 children — six girls, four boys — and educated them entirely in the home.

Farris and his wife — a certified teacher who he says "had to unlearn all the stuff she'd been taught" in order to educate their kids — are two pioneers of the home-schooling movement as we know it today. Farris fought many of the most prominent home-school battles through the 1980s, when it was illegal to home-school children in many states; he founded the Christian Home School Legal Defense Association in 1983, and his family became a model for home schoolers across the U.S.

Theirs was fundamentally a fight about values, but curiously, it was also where the two opposite ends of the culture wars converged to wage a battle over First Amendment rights and individual choice. It would take some entrepreneurial lawyering through the Reagan, Bush and Clinton eras to decriminalize what is today a commonly accepted practice. The courtroom drama was forged from 1970s cultural movements in which parents on the right and the left sought to determine how to educate their children: private, public, parochial or on the living-room floor.

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Those on the right came bearing the good word of Raymond S. Moore, co-author of Better Late Than Early: A New Approach to Your Child's Education (1975) and School Can Wait (1979). Moore, an education researcher, World War II veteran and education Ph.D., became a cult hero of the booming Christian right. In fact, it was listening to an interview with Moore on the Christian radio program Focus on the Family that Farris had his aha moment. He mulled it over for a few days before broaching the idea of home schooling to his wife; as it happened, she had heard the same program and was nervous to talk to her husband about it.

Moore's book was skeptical of "tax-supported preschool" and decried early education as an invention of convenience, created by parents more interested in getting the kids out of the way than genuinely educating them at an earlier age. Published at the end of the Nixon era, at its heart the book asks what the source of children's values ought to be: the classroom or the family?

"We were very strong on this idea that you learn your values from who you spend time with," Farris says today. "You spend time with your friends — that's who you get your values from. With your family — then that's who." Home-schooling opponents often cite the need for kids to socialize with others, particularly with those who are different from them. But Farris' kids weren't lonely growing up. All of his 10 kids are grown; nine are out of the house, eight are married. Most of his grandkids are home-schooled.

Those on the left were guided by another product of the postwar era: a New Englander named John Holt, educated at a prestigious Swiss boarding school and then Yale, and a former employee of the United World Federalists, the postwar group that sought a world government. Around the same time that Moore published Better Late Than Early, Holt, who had spent the better part of a decade studying children's learning habits as a teacher and researcher in a Boston elementary school classroom, came out with Escape From Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children.

Instead of framing the issue in terms of values or religion, Holt tackled it with all the fervor of a 1970s anti-authoritarian. Thus was born "unschooling." The crunchier version of Moore's Christian movement, unschooling is about so-called "natural" learning and suggests that schools sap children of familial love and teach them more about hollow success than true intelligence.

Fast-forward to the 1980s, when left met right. Farris found himself defending a hodgepodge of home-schoolers/unschoolers throughout the decade, mostly Christians like him and his family, but also "black Jews, Muslims ... even one woman who told me her religious practices were a cross between Zen Buddhism and the philosophy of Winnie the Pooh."

States got creative, defending compulsory school attendance laws by leveraging truancy and even child abuse charges against home-schooling parents, and lawyers like Farris rose to the top of a booming individual rights movement.

Farris and other lawyers fought to change the definition of a private school to include home schooling; they combated truancy charges aplenty and faced down the dictum that students should only be taught by certified teachers. But mostly they won the courts' silence, as judges refused to rule on the inherent value of home schooling and instead considered it from a rights perspective. That, in itself, was victory.

Today, most of the nearly 2 million home-schooled kids are probably still seen as fringe — but the idea of criminalizing parents for teaching kids at home? Equally fringe.

And the 1980s debates that could unite two opposing value systems under the shared umbrella of a libertarian ideal? Those seem equally far off amid today's deeply personal and political battles over teacher tenure, the Common Core and all other elements of the "most embattled profession in America." It's enough to make us long for that one-room schoolhouse, too.

Sanjena Sathian has an obsessive relationship with books, politics and instant noodles. You can find her on Twitter @sanjenasathian.