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The Future of Homeschool Lobbying

By Antony Kolenc
Written exclusively for Practical Homeschooling—Website Edition, August 20178, ©2018 Home Life, Inc., all rights reserved.

Where would homeschoooling be without lobbyists? Let's hope we never find out.
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Antony Kolenc

Imagine a world without lobbyists, where every individual member of the electorate must contact his or her representative personally to convey some desire for less, more, or better regulation. How effective would such a system be? Would typical voters be aware of all the legislation being considered in their state capitals? Even if they were, would they be educated sufficiently on the issues to know what requests to make of such politicians? Would they have the expertise to recommend detailed, specific legislation to solve particular problems? Probably not.
Enter the lobbyists. In theory, lobbying should be a good thing, with groups of voters hiring advocates to champion causes for those with less political power in order to protect the interests of average Americans who otherwise might not be heard by their representatives.
Yet lobbying has become a dirty word in some circles because big business and political interests have inundated the system with those hired to influence politicians, backed by the monetary clout to bankroll campaigns and create the perception that representatives are beholden to “special interests.”
Thankfully, lobbying by homeschoolers has often brought out the best in this controversial but important piece of today’s political puzzle.
How Lobbying Has Helped Homeschooling
For homeschooling families, life before lobbyists was precarious. Prior to the advent of robust lobbying on behalf of home education, the status and rights of such families were often in doubt, subject to arbitrary enforcement of the laws and unchecked threats by state and local government authorities. And while some families today still fear capricious government action, the work of lobbyists at the state and national level has gone far to lessen those threats and secure clear, reasonable legislation that has encouraged the homeschooling phenomenon to grow at historic rates.
Passing legislation favorable to home educators is painstaking work, requiring the assistance of full-time professionals to act as watchdogs of state and local regulators. Yet without lobbying efforts, countless attacks on homeschooling freedoms could not have been defeated in recent years. Indeed, through the efforts of lobbyists, homeschool advocates have done more than merely defend against bad legislation; they have also taken the initiative to garner laws that expand opportunities for home educators.
State Lobbying Efforts
State-level homeschool lobbyists are still waging the fight against homeschooling regulations, attempting to preserve the broad freedom to legally educate at home.
These battles come in large and small packages. A few years ago, homeschoolers in California defeated an effort that essentially would have made homeschooling illegal in the state.
In January of 2016, a proposed New Jersey bill would have required parents for the first time to inform school districts of the decision to homeschool, and would have mandated that school districts maintain records on children educated at home. The homeschool lobby is crucial in addressing these and similar issues.
Perhaps one of the most successful ongoing lobbying efforts at the state level has been the push for “Tebow” bills—named after the famous home-educated athlete, Tim Tebow. These bills give homeschooled students more access to public school sports. Getting such legislation passed has been a long-term commitment involving the help of lobbyists. Over 30 states now have some version of such legislation; however, local lobbying efforts continue against stiff odds in other states, such as Virginia. Homeschoolers in Virginia—with the help of lobbyists such as Scott Price—saw recent success on this issue in their legislature after years of effort, only to have Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe veto Tebow bills in 2015, 2016, and 2017. In 2018, another attempt was made, but this time the bill died in committee.
Two other notable issues will percolate in various states over the next few years. First, lobbyists will carry on the fight to eliminate or minimize the influence of “Common Core” and its rebranded siblings on private and home schools. Second, efforts will continue to grant tax breaks to home educators to the same extent as other private schools. None of these labors will be accomplished without the intervention of lobbyists acting on behalf of homeschooled families.
Lobbying on a National Scale
In addition to state and local efforts, major national lobbying organizations have had a decisive impact on homeschooling. Since the early 1980s, the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) has earned a reputation as the most influential of these lobbying groups, with notable successes policing laws at the state level, while also lobbying Congress and even international bodies to expand access to homeschooling across the nation and the globe.
For instance, in 2015, HSLDA assisted in ensuring that a major education bill signed by President Obama preserved an exemption from federal regulations for those who educate at home. HSLDA was also instrumental in recent years in securing equal treatment for homeschoolers in U.S. military recruitment and accession procedures.
The Federal Lobbying Agenda
There are two items that lobbyists will continue to press at the federal level in the near future.
First, homeschooling advocates will work to restore important student privacy protections regarding personally identifiable records kept in government databases. The Obama Administration’s Department of Education passed regulations that have weakened certain privacy protections provided under the Family Educational Records Privacy Act (FERPA). Congress can fix some of those problems with further legislation.
Second, lobbyists will attempt to expand Coverdell Education Savings Accounts. A future Congress could expand this important federal education tax benefit to all homeschooling families by allowing parents to deposit up to $2000 per year of their own (already-taxed) money toward their children’s home education expenses. That benefit is currently limited to homeschoolers who live in states where they are considered to be a “private” school.
How Can You Influence the Process?
Not everyone outside the movement is a fan of a strong homeschool lobby. Some fear that home educators have gone too far in seeking an unregulated environment. Every time a child who is not in school is found to be badly abused—even when it is clear the parents were not homeschooling and might not have even claimed they were—and even when the abusers were reported multiple times, sometimes while the child was in public school, without anything being done—multiple politicians and media outlets call for more homeschool regulation. Indeed, it is probable that homeschoolers will be facing increased threats to their educational freedoms, to which many have become accustomed in recent years.
So how can homeschoolers influence these political processes?
The most important point is for homeschooling families to stay engaged in their local and state political scenes. Calls to legislators at key decision moments have gone far in defeating bad pieces of legislation and pushing forward some good ones.
Perhaps the most convenient way to stay on top of the big issues is to subscribe to “e-alert” services such as those run by HSLDA at http://www.hslda.org/elert/. You will receive targeted emails on key national and local bills, along with instructions on how to contact legislators and other government officials to accomplish the mission. These will also present outstanding opportunities to educate your families on the political process, and the importance of civic engagement.
Membership in your state homeschool group will also keep you “in the loop” regarding any worrisome bills in your state, via the state newsletter and alerts, and let you know when and where to voice your concerns. You can locate your state group at http://www.home-school.com/groups.
And if your state has a Homeschool Capitol Day, as many do, once a year you’ll have the chance to “lobby” your legislators and educate them about homeschooling in person, while showing your children how the political process works. For an example of what goes on at a Capitol Day, see this:
The next year will undoubtedly bring many challenges and opportunities in this area, so put on your lobbying caps and stay vigilant!
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