The History of Homeschooling in the United States and Georgia
By Mary Jo Patterson and Ruth Martin
Georgia Home Education Association
2002, updated 2009
Before the government got into the business of education, homeschooling was the norm in America. Parents were responsible for the upbringing and education of their own children. These children were either taught by their parents, privately tutored, taught in small groups by a tutor hired by the parents, or a combination of these options. The system worked very well. At the time of the American Revolution the literacy rate was nearly 97%. The general public got most of their information from newspaper-like publications. The Federalist Papers, a series of documents published in the local newspaper in the late 1700’s, were commonly read, understood, and debated by the general public. Quality, complex writing, such as The Federalist Papers, can cause problems for college students of today, but at that time, the average person was able to read and understand this information.
The education and socialization of children were two of the driving forces that propelled the Pilgrims to make the difficult decision to leave Holland. They had religious freedom there, but they were losing their children to the secular Dutch society. Cognizant of these facts, they made the arduous and dangerous journey in the Mayflower in order to create an environment where they could direct the education and socialization of their children. The immigrants who followed the Pilgrims across the sea continued in the cherished tradition of education and passing on their values to their children. The idea of tax-supported, compulsory education would have been abhorrent to these colonists. From these earliest times until the mid-1800’s, parents in America decided if, when, where, and how their children were to be educated. This freedom produced phenomenal results.
The founding fathers of our country produced two of the most amazing documents ever to come from the hearts and minds of men: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. The concepts in these documents grew out of the kind of education these men received. They owed their fine education to their parents, to tutors their parents engaged and perhaps a few years of formal schooling. For example, George Washington had two years of formal schooling and Ben Franklin had less than that. This apparent lack of schooling was fairly typical of the era. Children received very little formal education and yet they were very literate and knew about numbers at an early age. Their educators, whether parents or school masters, expected much of these children. Children were expected to demonstrate true literacy (sometimes in more than one language), and master studies in the classics, math, and knowledge of the Bible. In fact, the Bible was the most universal textbook in the colonies. The children were given responsibility and significant work to do, but also a lot of freedom to develop their own interests and talents. George Washington learned surveying between ages 11 and 13, the only formal schooling he ever had, and was earning a living at surveying by age 16. Over the course of the next three years, he earned the equivalent of $100,000 per year. And we know by many accounts of his contemporaries, he was not considered to possess any remarkable intellect. He may not have been a genius, but his education was real and he was able to put it to good use while still a very young man. John Adams, our second president, spent a lot of time in the services of his country. During these extended periods of separation, he often wrote to his wife, Abigail, at length, about her role in educating their four children, one of whom (John Quincy) we know became President of the United States.
The first public school opened its doors in 1837 in Massachusetts, the state that had been a seedbed of freedom in this country only 75 years earlier. The state senate under the leadership of Horace Mann, enacted the first statewide school system in which schools were centralized, state controlled, and financed by property taxes. This state-run education system became compulsory in Massachusetts in 1852 and was the beginning of state-controlled secular education and the first significant loss of freedom for individuals and families in Massachusetts and, consequently, the entire country. By the 1840’s there were popular instruction books about home education, such as Domestic Education. Also, perhaps to counteract the growing number of community schools, Lydia Sigourney wrote Letters to Mothers, encouraging mothers to tutor their children at home, rather than sending them to school. However, by the 1840’s, the country was moving inevitably toward government, tax-supported, public school and compulsory attendance. No other states followed Massachusetts’ lead for another 15 years, but between 1867 and 1918 all the states enacted compulsory school attendance laws. From the middle of the 19th century onward, education moved out of the home and away from parents’ control into the realm of government schools with state control. This movement was not initiated to improve literacy or educational quality, but to "fix" poverty, to secularize the learning process, and to "properly socialize" children.
According to the writings of John Dewey, the father of modern education, the primary objective of compulsory, state-controlled education was socialization, not academic learning. Contrary to the popular conception that government schools are failing, they are not. They have succeeded very well in fulfilling Dewey’s definition of a proper education. After 1920, the focus of discussions about education changed from the concept of compulsory attendance to other priorities: the number of hours, prolonging the school day and school year, and including more children in the compulsory arena by lowering and raising the ages of attendance.
Also in the 1920’s, there were two significant Supreme Court decisions which curtailed the influence of compulsory attendance and would help to legalize the modern home school movement years later. In 1923, the Court ruled in Myer vs Nebraska case that the state’s right over education is not absolute and in 1925 the Court, in Pierce vs Society of Sisters, said Oregon parents could not be denied their own schools, noting, "The child is not a mere creature of the State."
During the transition from complete parental control in education to compulsory attendance, there were children who were home educated. But not until the 1960’s and the rise of the hippie counter-culture did home schooling start to become, even remotely, a real choice in education. The hippies rebelled against anything and everything deemed to be the "establishment" and education fell into that category. This first modern attempt at home schooling was very child-centered and loose, but the idea that parents should control their children’s education was reborn and was, quite likely, the best thing that happened in the 60’s.
Pioneers in the modern home school movement included John Holt and Raymond Moore. John Holt was a professional educator from Massachusetts who began to seriously criticize the public education system in the 1960’s with the publication of his book How Children Fail. Holt continued to preach overhauling the system and finally broke with the established public education system in 1977 when he realized that true reform was impossible. Holt founded his magazine Growing Without Schooling in 1977 and encouraged parents to home educate their children with the publication in 1981 of Teach Your Own. His magazine is still available in libraries although is no longer in publication. His ideas of unschooling are still very popular, especially in the northeastern region of the United States. Raymond Moore and his wife, Dorothy, were influential encouragers of home education. They wrote many books on home schooling and put it "on the map" in a national way in 1972 when their articles appeared in Readers Digest and Harpers Magazine. Also, an interview by the "Focus on the Family" radio show, introduced the idea of homeschooling to the national Christian community.
The 1970’s also saw a resurgence of fundamental, Bible-based Christianity. This awakening to a Biblical concept of rearing children according to Deut. 6:7 led many to remove their children from what they believed to be anti-Christian government schools. Many also believed the schools to be academically inferior and morally bankrupt. The movement began slowly. In the late 70’s only about 15,000 children nationwide were being homeschooled. But the movement continued to grow steadily despite opposition from the education establishment. There were many families who suffered persecution, prosecution, and even served time in jail in order to educate their children at home. Others lobbied their legislators unceasingly to get favorable laws passed. Many of the successes that homeschoolers had across the country in gaining favorable laws can be directly attributed to the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). Founded in 1983 by Michael Farris and Michael Smith, HSLDA has been involved in homeschooling cases in every state and, thanks to its efforts, home schooling is now recognized as "legal" in every state. However, because of vague or overly-restrictive laws, many parents still face criminal prosecution every year. For more information on HSLDA, please visit their website www.hslda.org.
We owe these pioneers a debt of gratitude for making the way easier for those who have come after them. At present, it is estimated that at least 2 million children are being educated at home in the United States.
Georgia Home Schooling
About 60,000 - 75,000 of those 2 million students live in Georgia and are happily and legally learning at home. This has not always been the case. There were families quietly homeschooling their children in Georgia in the 1970’s. The operative word here is "quietly." In order to home school legally, a parent had to inform the local superintendent and get permission to operate as a private school. Most superintendents were not cooperative. The other option was to homeschool underground. If the local school authorities discovered parents who were homeschooling, they threatened them with fines and jail for failing to comply with the compulsory attendance law. These parents would either comply or quickly move out of the superintendent’s jurisdiction.
In 1979, however, something different happened. Patty Blankenship, a single mom homeschooling her two sons, decided not to move. She was living in DeKalb County and had been homeschooling for about one year when on September 12, 1979 at 9:00 PM, she was arrested at her home and charged with non-compliance with the school attendance law. She was taken to the county jail, finger-printed and put into prison clothes. She was released at 2:30 PM the next day when neighbors raised the $1000 for her bond. The following Monday, while she was away from home, two men came by and told her landlady that they were there to get her children and would be back unless they were enrolled in a public school by the next morning. This time she did hide. She sent her sons out of the county and went into hiding herself, emerging only when her case went to court. In October 1979, her case was thrown out of Magistrate’s Court when Magistrate Hopkins Kidd ruled that Blankenship’s sons could not give testimony about their school. Because they were the only witnesses the prosecution could call, Patty went free, protected by the 5th Amendment. The prosecutor, William Mumford, still wanted to prosecute Mrs. Blankenship, so the process began anew. Her lawyer won a restraining order to keep county officials from interfering with custody of her children and she continued to homeschool. The trial commenced on March 24, 1980 and ended on March 28 when a six-person jury was unable to reach a decision resulting in a mistrial. Patty Blankenship had researched the law before she began homeschooling and had established a private school called the American Christian School. She was complying with the law in regards to private schools when she was arrested, but the local school officials and law enforcement, especially the prosecutor, did not recognize her private school. The trial did not definitively settle anything about the legality of homeschooling because it ended with a hung jury. What it did do was bring the homeschooling issue to a head. Patty was allowed to continue homeschooing because the prosecutor, despite his threats, never brought her to trial again.
As a result of Mrs. Blankenship’s trial, the state school superintendent, Charles McDaniel, proposed changes for the Georgia compulsory attendance law. In June 1980, the new regulations were presented to the State Board of Education. The proposal never came to a vote, but would have defined schools as the following:
nA public school must be operated by the State or its political subdivision.
nA private school must have a minimum of 15 students regularly enrolled for at least 4 ½ hours daily and 180 days annually.
nA private school must have a facility primarily used for instruction.
nA private school must have a minimum of one teacher who is a college graduate of a regionally accredited institution.
Had these new regulations been voted on and put into effect, it would have eliminated any means for a family to legally homeschool in Georgia. That was the intent of the proposal.
The state public education establishment, led by the State Superintendent of Schools, Charles McDaniel, was strongly opposed to home education. Any parent who chose this option for their children ran the real risk of arrest, prosecution, and jail time. This proved true in the case of Terry and Vickie Roemhild. They began homeschooling in July of 1981 and on September 11th informed the principal of the local school, the county superintendent of schools, and the state superintendent of schools that they were homeschooling. The state responded that home-study decisions were made on a local level between the parents, the school system and legal authorities. However, the local principal and superintendent refused to discuss the situation with them. These brave homeschool pioneers tried to comply with the law and establish a private home-study school, but they were thwarted by the authorities. Eventually, they stood trial and were found guilty of nineteen violations of the compulsory attendance law by a Superior Court judge. Sentencing was set for January 20, 1983, and the Roemhilds appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. The same day that the Roemhilds were convicted, the state school superintendent again submitted his anti-homeschool proposal to the state board of education. The proposal would change the requirements for a private school and effectively ban homeschooling in the state. The first time this proposal was submitted in 1980 it had not been voted on; however, this time it would be.
This action by the superintendent prompted a few homeschooling families to meet at the Lilburn City Hall on January 22, 1983. This small group of courageous pioneers founded Georgians for Freedom in Education, the first state homeschooling group. Led by Connie Shaw, over 200 packets were sent state-wide to home educators, private schools, interested organizations, friends and allies. As a result, the proposal was stopped at the February 9 state school board meeting.
Besides the Roemhilds, two other families were brought to trial for violating the compulsory attendance laws. In the trial, however, Judge West found the defendants not guilty. Because of this discrepancy in the interpretation of the law by two competent judges, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision in the Roemhild case finding that the Georgia compulsory law was "unconstitutionally vague," did not sufficiently define private schools, and denied due process by allowing local officials and juries to define what constitutes a private school.
Joe Frank Harris, who was Georgia’s governor in 1984, was sympathetic to the homeschoolers’ desire for a favorable law. He assigned staffer Ron Newcombe to work with the legislature, the homeschoolers, and the Department of Education to come up with a law that was acceptable to everyone. The legislators and the homeschoolers worked together and came up with one of the least restrictive homeschool laws in the country. Charles McDaniel, state school superintendent, was so determined not to allow homeschooling in Georgia that he refused to participate in the process. SB 504 was introduced during the 1984 legislative session, passed the Senate 52-1, and passed the House 146-24. The governor signed the bill thus protecting the right of parents to home educate their children in Georgia. The senator who voted against SB504 did so because he felt the law was too restrictive, not because he disagreed with home schooling. He felt the state should have no control over the way parents educate their children.
There were not many homeschoolers in Georgia in 1984, but the numbers have grown steadily 10% to 15% every year. There also were not many resources for homeschoolers in 1984. Those have grown steadily as well. The first attempts at support for homeschoolers were very meager. There was a Hewitt-Moore seminar in 1982 and there was no curriculum for sale (only household management and child training books). In 1985 the first curriculum fair was held on a very rainy day in a tiny little church on the north side of Atlanta. There were only six vendors and two of them were cottage industries selling pot holders and brownies. In 1986, Gregg Harris, a home schooling pioneer from Oregon, conducted his first seminar in the Atlanta area and brought some real textbooks to sell. From this very small beginning, curriculum fairs, conferences, and resources have grown exponentially for home school families. The State Convention, hosted by the Georgia Home Education Association (GHEA) now has over 100 vendors, nationally recognized speakers, and 4500+ attendees all housed in over 100,000 sq. ft. of convention center space.
Georgia Home Education Association (GHEA)
From 1984 until 1988, Georgians for Freedom in Education was active in helping homeschoolers. In 1988, however, leader Connie Shaw moved to Texas and the organization became less active. At the same time more local support groups began forming to help people who desired to homeschool. One of these groups, Southside Home Schoolers, sponsored the first large conference in 1985 and brought Gregg Harris, a nationally recognized speaker, to Atlanta from 1986 to 1991.
In 1992, several homeschooling families got together and decided that Georgia needed a viable, politically-active, state-wide organization and, as a result, the Georgia Home Education Association (GHEA) was born. Not having any political crisis to bond homeschoolers in Georgia, it was difficult at first to have a state-wide presence. Initially, the primary function of GHEA was to slowly build a database of members, counsel potential and active homeschoolers, support local support groups and sponsor a yearly convention.
The first challenge for GHEA was a national one. In 1994, Representative Miller from California submitted an amendment to national education legislation (HR6). This amendment would have required every teacher to be certified in the subject area they were teaching. Even though this legislation was aimed at public education, it had potentially dire consequences for private and homeschool teachers as well. Homeschoolers responded to the challenge by calling their US Representatives to voice their negative opinion of the amendment and effectively shut down Washington, DC for a week with over 1,000,000 phone calls. Georgia homeschoolers did their part in this grass roots action. Because of this tremendous effort, homeschoolers have the reputation in the nation’s capitol of being the most effective grass roots lobbying force in the nation.
The next challenge was a direct assault on the Georgia 1984 home school law. In 1997, Representative Carolyn Hugley introduced HB586, which would have shut down homeschooling in Georgia. GHEA contacted as many home school support groups and individuals as possible advising them to contact their representatives about this bill. It was a repeat of HR6, but on a state level. The switchboard handled more than 10,000 calls in three days. The point was made: homeschoolers, when fighting for the right to direct the education of their children, are formidable. The bill died in committee. These political threats actually led to improved communication between independent home school groups and caused home schoolers to unite for a common cause.
Since then, homeschooling in Georgia has been relatively quiet and families are home educating in peace, with only a few glitches here and there. Most of these are misunderstandings of the law at the county level on the part of the superintendent’s office personnel. Even though we have an excellent law in Georgia and home schoolers have many friends in the General Assembly, the last thing we need to be is complacent. According to a quote by Thomas Jefferson "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance".
The Georgia Home Education Association is a 501(c)(3), non-profit Christian organization that provides information and resources to all families involved in home-based, parent-directed, privately-funded education in Georgia. GHEA is governed by a Board of Directors and functions with a volunteer staff. GHEA is committed to the advancement of home education and to protecting every family’s right to home educate their children and considers it part of its mission to help families across Georgia involved in this alternative education choice.
The CQ Researcher, Sept.9,1994 Volume 4, No. 33 Pages 769-792. Published by Congressional Quarterly Inc.
Gatto, John Taylor. The Underground History of American Education. Published by Oxford Village Press: 2001.
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Lloyd, Janice. Home Schooling Grows. www.usatoday.com. Article: 1-5-09.
Ray, Brian D. (1992) Marching to the Beat of Their Own Drum, A Profile of Home Education Research. Published by and available from the Home School Legal Defense Association.