Lobbying on Many Fronts
HSLDA’s state-by-state fight against oversight
By Harry Parker and Mary Steffenhagen
A driving force behind America’s rise in homeschooling is the Home School Legal Defense Association, a little-known group that lobbies across the country to ease government restrictions and oversight.
The Virginia-based group, almost four decades old with deep evangelical roots, vigilantly tracks legislation on homeschooling. Its work has spurred families to flood legislators’ phone lines, sparked rallies on Capitol Hill and pushed its causes through social media to spur supporters.
The HSLDA is “the most powerful legal and political advocate for homeschooling,” attorney Timothy B. Waddell wrote in a Vanderbilt Law Review analysis of the rise in homeschooling and lobbying by its proponents.
An examination by the NYCity News Service of public filings and other documents shows the organization, while combating rules on homeschooling, simultaneously presses legislatures on issues that have seemingly nothing to do with homeschooling.
In the past year alone, it has been fighting vaccination requirements and opposing a national child abuse registry—both in the name of defending parental rights.
How the HSLDA rallied supporters to oppose a national child abuse registry. (HSLDA website)
Two recent lobbying efforts underscore the ways the HSLDA fights to give parents more say in educating their children.
It has fought a California proposal mandating kindergarten, contending parents should have the choice of when to start children’s schooling.
And when the pandemic began in 2020, HSLDA spotted a proposed Ohio law that a “qualifying parent” would determine if a homeschooled child was in a building that addresses COVID-19 safety concerns. The group was concerned the phrase could be interpreted to limit decisions by any parent homeschooling their child. The group deemed the provision “unnecessary and confusing” and launched a campaign to erase it. The bill did not get out of committee.
Jim Mason, HSLDA’s president, told the News Service his group is a typical lobbying organization using standard approaches. (Mason was HSLDA’s vice president of litigation and development at the time of this conversation.)
“We write, and we speak, and we travel, and we talk, and we hold rallies and we give speeches and homeschool families go to Capitol days. and deliver apple pie to the legislators to kind of get acquainted,” he said.
But there are a range of issues it lobbies on that are not about homeschooling.
Last year, the HSLDA fought a proposed Colorado rule that would require homeschooling parents to file immunization records with school boards, calling such documentation “unnecessary bureaucracy.”
That is not the only time it has fought immunization regulations. It opposed a Washington, D.C., immunization law enacted during the pandemic allowing children as young as 11 to decide with their doctors, and not their parents, if they wish to get government-approved vaccinations. HSLDA and other groups argue parents should have a say in whether their children get immunizations.
In addition, HSLDA opposed proposed congressional reauthorization last year of a federal child abuse prevention law, and seeking changes in the National Child Abuse Registry, the database of suspected or convicted abusers.
It favored a Michigan bill that would have exempted homeschooled children from needing work permits when seeking jobs during the school year. HSLDA said current rules require “homeschooled parents to trudge down to the local school office” needlessly. The proposal was vetoed by the governor.
“It’s just an ideological thing,” Mason said of HSLDA’s support of causes outside homeschooling. “I mean, we are more in favor of liberty and a permissive approach to child rearing and education as opposed to a kind of top-down, compliance-based model.”
Scott Somerville, a former HSLDA attorney who remains a supporter and has written about the organization’s growth, said its lobbying efforts on political issues beyond homeschooling regulations are an outgrowth of its members’ concerns.
Screenshot from HSLDA’s Legislative Action Center, from earlier this year.
“If there’s legislation that’s going to create a whole lot of new dumb stuff, I’m going to oppose it,” he said. “And if there’s legislation that’s going to make dumb stuff go away, I’ll support it,” Somerville told the News Service.
Somerville said one of the keys to understanding HSLDA is its evangelical Christian roots,
“It’s a religious organization,” said Somerville. “But the mission of HSLDA is to defend the right of every parent, not just Christian parents,”
“God gave parents rights,” he said. “Because we’re Christians, we believe in God. And because we’re Christians, we believe in those rights. And because we’re Christians, we’re gonna defend those rights.”
A central belief is protecting family privacy from what HSLDA sees as unneeded government regulation.
“We’re just simply sort of standing there, like the knob on the door, that keeps [the world] from busting in and interrupting what the family’s doing,” he said.
Jeremy Young, the then interim executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, which often opposes HSLDA on homeschool regulations, sees the efforts differently.
“There is a pervasive sense that anything that strengthens the hand of social services, [or] of child protective services in any way, is a slippery slope toward banning homeschooling and taking rights away from parents,” he said.
RAISING ITS MONEY
To finance its political lobbying efforts, HSLDA solicits money from homeschooling families and others by promising to help “overcome discrimination—in the courts, the legislatures, and public and private sectors—and by promoting the success of homeschooling in the court of public opinion.”
HSLDA’s 990 tax document filed in 2020 for tax year 2019. (Downloaded from Guidestar)
HSLDA also has a related political action committee that has supported several U.S. Senate candidates recently, spending a total of more than $300,000.
Federal Election Commission records show HSLDA Action supported unsuccessful Senate campaigns by spending $157,148 to help John James in Michigan and $39,915 for aiding Kelly Loeffler’s bid in Georgia. It also spent $135,589 to help the campaign of Thom Tillis in North Carolina, who won. All are Republicans.
The spending was in large part to bring volunteers to those states for door-to-door canvassing and support. HSLDA flew in volunteers on Delta, United, American and Southwest airlines.
When they were on the ground, there was spending for rental cars, gas, food and supplies. Receipts were billed for Chipotle, Dominos, Walmart, Walgreens, Einstein Bagel Co., Hobby Lobby and more.
FEC records detailing HSLDA Action spending on volunteers for John James campaign. (Federal Election Commission site, Jan. 18, 2022)
Funding for the political action committee came overwhelmingly from another evangelical conservative political organization, the Family Research Council, which contributed $513,520 in late October 2020, just before the November national elections.
Sometimes HSLDA’s lobbying can be small-bore. In New Hampshire, HSLDA spent $270 in 2018 for a dinner and an event that included a legislator who is an ardent supporter of homeschooling.
To some critics HSLDA’s methods are overly aggressive.
“They’re using terrifying tactics,” said Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard Law School. “The moment a bill is put on the table HSLDA is going to call its membership in that state, and that legislator’s going to have his office flooded or her office flooded. They’re going to have hundreds of emails, they’re going to have hundreds of telephone calls. Pretty much what’s happened is the legislators just say, ‘It’s not worth it.’ ”
Bartholet said HSLDA exaggerates the scope of those it represents and in reality is lobbying on behalf of a small slice of homeschoolers.
HSLDA, which has previously clashed with Bartholet, discounts claims that its lobbying is unusual.
“I kind of laugh when I read those sorts of things,” says Mason of the criticism. “Because I know what we actually do, and we’re just kind of like regular…we do just kind of regular advocacy. You know, through lawful means.”
Other opponents don’t see HSLDA’s approach as aggressive, just successful.
“I think they’re just doing politics very well,” says Young of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. “The idea of mobilizing parents, homemakers, to advocate with legislators in large numbers with state legislators, many of whom don’t receive a lot of advocacy over time. That’s not new, it’s just being used very effectively. They’re bringing a very big gun to bear in a very small, with a very small target.”
NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL REACH
HSLDA has also engaged in international efforts promoting homeschooling.
The organization filed an asylum application with the U.S. government to grant refugee status for a German family that wanted to homeschool their children but was prevented by rules in their native country. The effort was successful. It has pushed the Brazilian government of Jair Bolsonaro to foster homeschooling.
The U.S. State Department tells its diplomats and other employees that HSLDA is a resource if they are considering homeschooling their children overseas and want to further understand laws abroad.
State Department online resources for overseas employees include links to HSLDA. (State Department website)
There are other groups that promote lobbying, including independent organizations that may work with HSLDA on key issues.
In Texas, the Texas Home School Coalition has become a prominent HSLDA ally and become integral in a state where Republican elected officials are dominant.
Jason Sabo, a progressive lobbyist in the state’s capital of Austin, has witnessed how HSLDA and others have worked to persuade state legislators. He said they match better financed groups with grassroots energy.
“When it comes to lobbying, these groups like the HSLDA or Texas Home School Coalition, their power doesn’t come so much from the immediate money, but from just all of their supporters that are so impassioned,” Sabo said. “That’s where the power comes from. The lobby money is inconsequential.”
“You physically cannot walk around the Capitol building without basically being accosted by an incredibly polite, incredibly, well spoken, young men and young women–homeschool kids who will come up to you and say, ‘Excuse me, what do you do? Who are you? Why are you in the building?’” says Sabo. “They start off when kids are like 13 or 14, and they inculcate them to politics and to retail lobby.”
The bill was proposed by Shawn Fluharty, a Democratic state lawmaker, after an 8-year-old girl was killed by a father who was under investigation by child protective services. The legislation would prevent a parent from beginning to homeschool a child if there the subject of an open investigation or if they had a child abuse conviction.
“I thought, well, the easy fix, right?” Fluharty said. “It’s really something that could have a drastic impact for the positive.”
Fluharty was surprised by the opposition.
“I thought it was a non-issue.”
Griffin Kelly and Keith Paul Medelis contributed to this story.
HSLDA’s Long Reach
Defending parental control far beyond education
By Griffin Kelly and Keith Paul Medelis
On a warm summer morning in 2010, Jodi Ferris was in labor in the back of an ambulance rushing her to Hershey Medical Center in central Pennsylvania.
Something was wrong.
Her baby was not due for another month. The umbilical cord was wrapped around its neck. Ambulance workers told the expectant mother not to push, fearing for the infant’s safety. Ferris still pushed. The ambulance was parked by the hospital emergency room. The baby girl, delivered in the vehicle, arrived blue, bruised and not breathing.
Ferris’s daughter was resuscitated and there were still complications. Her respiratory system was under stress and she had bruising on her forehead, a possible sign of jaundice. On top of that, Ferris denied basic postnatal care and testing to see if the baby was suffering from Group B Strep, which could lead to life-threatening meningitis, sepsis and pneumonia.
What unfolded was not only a tense fight over the infant’s medical care—with her life in the balance—but also a constitutional legal battle that unfolded for years.
Ferris did not want medical attention for the baby. When asked, she told hospital staff she had standard prenatal care, but her own midwife said that was not true. Ferris wanted to continually hold her baby. She demanded to hold the child while she underwent a procedure to fix a perineal tear. Ferris even refused to let the baby go while she urinated in their hospital room’s bathroom, putting the child down only to wash her own hands.
Doctors brought in a county social worker. They all concluded that the newborn was in “imminent danger” and undertook life-saving measures.
All of this happened in the span of about 13 hours, according to documents filed with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
Ferris and her husband, Scott, sued the hospital, doctors and the social worker, alleging they overreached their authority and violated the couple’s rights. The Ferrisses asserted that the effort to save the child was essentially an unlawful seizure and that they were not given due process.
To argue their case, the Ferrises got help from a seemingly unlikely source–the Home School Legal Defense Association, a nonprofit organization based in Virginia with a stated purpose to help homeschooling families. The association advocates for homeschooling before legislatures and offers legal aid, including the money for courtroom battles.
A U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals granted summary judgments in favor of the hospital and other defendants.
In an interview with the NYCity News Service, Jim Mason, the HSLDA’s president, said the Ferris case was outside of what the group normally does. (Mason was HSLDA’s vice president of litigation and development at the time of this conversation.)
“We thought this would be an opportunity to set a precedent that the medical providers have to respect what parents want in the hospital, especially with newborn children,” he said.
A News Service review of federal and state judicial opinions shows HSLDA occasionally litigates cases not directly related to homeschooling.
The News Service examined every court opinion in LexisNexis, a commercial database that collects decisions from courts in the nation. From 1989 to 2021, HSLDA served as counsel or filed friend-of-the-court briefs in at least 84 cases. These are just a small sampling of cases with published judges’ decisions and the exact number of cases is likely much higher. Of the judicial decisions that involved HSLDA lawyers, almost half–41 cases–do not pertain directly to homeschooling.
In addition to homeschooling, HSLDA’s concerns lie in promoting small government, religious freedom and what it believes are parents’ rights.
HSLDA has contested child-abuse cases in which homeschool parents alleged police officers or social workers entered their homes illegally—even though authorities said they had reasonable cause to be concerned about the safety of children.
“When homeschoolers are homeschooling in their homes, we feel that that should be a very highly protected place,” Mason said on a video call.
HSLDA critics argue the group breeds abuse by asserting that parents should have unquestioned authority over their children.
“Part of its pitch is that parents have an absolute right to control their children, educate their children, keep the state out and therefore there shouldn’t be any regulation whatsoever,” said Elizabteh Bartholet, a Harvard Law School professor.
A 2020 article by Bartholet in the Arizona Law Review looking at the “rapidly growing homeschooling phenomenon and the threat it poses to children and society” drew backlash at the time from HSLDA, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and some educational scholars.
A SENSE OF SCALE
The judicial decisions appear to represent just a fraction of the cases handled by HSLDA attorneys.
In a 2020 report, the group claims to have represented 797 discrimination cases and appeared in court 21 times in that year alone, indicating that there may well be many legal disputes it has engaged in that never reach the stage of a judge writing a decision.
According to recent publicly available tax returns, HSLDA spent nearly $2.4 million on legal advocacy, education and protection for homeschool parents in 2018. The group claims to have 100,000 families in its memberships. The HSLDA described itself on previous tax forms as “a tool increasingly used by God” to protect homeschoolers.
To be sure, the HSLDA has long been involved in many cases that directly involve homeschooling.
“We’ve done more homeschool cases than, obviously, anyone ever,” said Michael Farris, founder, board chairman and frequent attorney for HSLDA, told a Conservation Political Action Conference in 2011. He now is CEO of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit advocacy group.
Mason told the News Service that the HSLDA’s team is primarily interested in what he described as the “meat and potatoes” homeschooling issues—matters such as understanding parental obligations to notify school districts and promoting homeschooling freedom—that are not necessarily the subject of litigation.
“The court cases tend to get more attention, but they’re a fairly small part of what we do,” he said. “We don’t do that many.”
State homeschooling regulations vary widely across the U.S. For instance, Alaska doesn’t require test taking, teacher certifications or any notification of authorities. In New York, parents are required to provide detailed curricula to the state, administer standardized tests and teach specific subjects based on grade level.
>>>READ MORE: The patchwork of laws governing homeschooling<<<
HSLDA has challenged requirements of all kinds.
In a 2006 federal court case in Pennsylvania, HSLDA lost when it defended parents in the Homer School District, about an hour east of Pittsburgh, who said being required to submit a curriculum and attendance records violated their religious beliefs.
In 1992, the Dekalb County District Court in Alabama found Randy Maas guilty of violating the state’s compulsory attendance policy when he began homeschooling his daughter. But Maas was arrested before receiving a written notice that he was allegedly violating the law. That fact helped the HSLDA in reversing the judgment in the Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama.
“HSLDA has been a powerful force in promoting the right to homeschool from a legal standpoint,” said Daniel Hamlin, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Oklahoma. “Whether they have won or lost those cases, HSLDA has been able to shine a light on homeschooling through its work in the courts, and subsequently, help to force states to clarify homeschooling rights with legislation.”
In the early 1980s, only three states allowed homeschooling explicitly, Hamlin said. By the 1990s, through legal action by HSLDA and other homeschool advocates, all 50 states had adopted various legislation to allow for and clarify the use of homeschooling.
“The debate on homeschooling has shifted from whether or not a parent has the right to homeschool but what regulations on homeschooling should be in place,” Hamlin said. “HSLDA prefers very little state intervention and regulation.”
WHEN PROTECTIVE SERVICES ARE CALLED
Outside of homeschooling cases, the News Service review of judges’s opinions found six involving abuse allegations.
On April 17, 2012, police were called to the home of the Batts family in Orchard Park, New York. A family relative had reported that an elderly man was in grave danger. The man was in his late 80s, with dementia and other chronic illnesses.
The family demanded an officer show a warrant for the welfare check. Warrants are not needed in New York when police check on someone’s welfare.
The Batts family had long been HSLDA members. According to the HSLDA Facebook page, “after much prayer and thought, the Batts decided to sue.” HSLDA represented the family and argued that authorities had illegally entered their home.
The Batts and HSLDA lost the case despite multiple appeals.
Mason said HSLDA has occasionally taken on cases that don’t involve members.
He referenced an incident in 2014 where HSLDA helped Vanessa Wilson of Riverside, California, regain custody of her 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter from Child Protective Services. According to Mason, an investigator believed Wilson was not properly caring for her daughter, who had recently been diagnosed with diabetes. Upon learning the children were homeschooled, the investigator asked the boy a series of math questions and felt that his education wasn’t adequate. Both children were removed from the home.
Wilson, Mason said, “had been sent to us by another homeschooling group in California, and we felt that she’d been treated unjustly. We worked to get her kids back. And once we got her kids back, we sued.”
According to an HSLDA blog post by Mason, Wilson was reunited with her kids 50 days later and received a $700,000 settlement from CPS, which a representative from the Riverside County CPS confirmed.
“Too many people are investigated by CPS for reasons that are not sufficient,” Mason said, “and it’s such an intrusive and invasive system.”
LOOKING BEYOND BORDERS
Some HSLDA legal activities are even further afield from homeschooling.
In 1996, HSLDA’s Farris represented Michael New, a U.S. Army soldier who was court martialed. As a child, he was homeschooled, according to the Toronto Star, but that incidental fact was not at issue in his case.
In 1995, New—trained as a medical specialist—objected when his unit was set to be deployed to the Balkans as part of the United Nations peacekeeping operation to help end the war there. His unit was told they would need to wear blue U.N. helmets and shoulder patches.
“I am not a citizen of the United Nations. I am not a United Nations Fighting Person,” he told his superiors. “I have never taken an oath to the United Nations, but I have taken the required oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.”
The Army charged New with failing to obey a direct order and demoted him to a file clerk position.
New petitioned the Pentagon to dismiss the case and discharge him. Farris and three non-HSLDA lawyers represented New on his petition, which was rejected.
In a 2013 federal case, HSLDA filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Carol Anne Bond, a microbiologist from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, who was prosecuted by state authorities for harassing a friend after Bond learned that the woman was pregnant with her husband’s child. Federal prosecutors say Bond also attempted to poison the woman with the chemicals stolen from her workplace, a chemical manufacturing company, as well as purchased online.
Federal prosecutors charged Bond with violating a 1997 U.S. law enacted to comply with an international chemical weapons treaty. At the state level, Bond faced only harassment charges for threatening the mistress by phone and in writing, to which she pleaded guilty.
The federal case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where HSLDA along with several other legal advocacy groups argued that Bond should not be subject to the ruling of the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty ratified by the U.S. HSLDA argued that it “vigorously opposes the adoption of international treaties” that would “usurp state authority.”
In the end, Bond was not charged under federal law. The Supreme Court decided the Chemical Weapons Convention was not meant to cover small, local matters like Bond’s poisoning attempt.
“SHOW THE BODY OF CHRIST HOW TO RESPOND”
The HSLDA also has handled religious liberty cases that have no seemingly direct or immediate connection with homeschooling.
In 1980, the Fairfax Covenant Church had been renting out space from the Fairfax County School Board in Virginia on Sunday mornings. By 1987, the church was paying five times as much as non-religious groups that rented from the school board.
School board policies allowed it to charge religious groups more for rent after the first few years. It contended this two-tier pricing was needed to avoid inappropriately favoring faith groups. The church countered that between 1987 and 1993 it was unfairly charged about $290,000.
HSLDA, which represented the church and won in federal courts, has tied religious-liberty cases to its defense of homeschooling.
In a speech delivered before the Christian Home Educators of Ohio in 2010, Farris warned that an anti-Christian wave was coming to crush homeschoolers.
“You need to know about it. You need to get ready to fight it,” he said. “Homeschoolers need to show the Body of Christ how to respond to the days that are coming. Persecution is on its way.”
“It will be in the courtrooms tomorrow,” he said. “They are going to try to win. They are going to throw everything at us they can.”