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DeVos Backlash Sees Parents Threatening to Homeschool Kids

Image: U.S. Education Secretary DeVos concludes her remarks to Education Department staff on her first day on the job in Washington
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos concludes her remarks to Education Department staff on her first day on the job in Washington, on Feb. 8. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Among the initial opposition to Betsy DeVos' confirmation this week as education secretary were calls on social media by parents, including liberals, to start homeschooling their children.

That reaction to DeVos — a billionaire school-choice advocate who has never worked, attended or sent her kids to a public school — reflects how polarizing her nomination was.

It also comes layered with paradox.

That's because DeVos, whom the Senate confirmed Tuesday to head the Education Department, is herself a big proponent of homeschooling.

In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy magazine, DeVos, who has invested in private and charter schools and is an advocate for their expansion, said homeschooling was "another perfectly valid educational option."

She continued:

We've seen more and more people opt for homeschooling, including in urban areas. What you're seeing is parents who are fed up with their lack of power to do anything about where their kids are assigned to go to school. To the extent that homeschooling puts parents back in charge of their kids' education, more power to them.

DeVos' emphasis on school choice is a natural fit for the homeschool movement, whose members span the political spectrum but are largely conservative Christians who resist government oversight. That group has helped fuel remarkable growth in recent years, carrying the movement from the fringe and closer to the mainstream.

Image: Betsy DeVos arrives at the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing t
DeVos arrives at the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 17. Yuri Gripas / Reuters, file

An estimated 1.8 million children were homeschooled in 2012, up from 850,000 three years earlier, according to an Education Department survey published last June.

With the movement's growth has come increased clout, which has resulted in homeschooling's becoming legal in every state. But each state has different regulations on curriculum, background checks, testing and vaccination — raising concerns about abuse and neglect, as documented in a 2015 investigation by ProPublica and Slate.

But with the rise of homeschooling, and the internet, there is a growing community of support for homeschooling parents and their children.

Now they may have a champion in DeVos.

Until her nomination, DeVos served as chairwoman of the American Federation of Children, a group that advocates for education savings accounts, which redirect public school funds for use by parents to pay for other options, including expenses associated with homeschooling. DeVos could push for states to implement them.

"DeVos would love nothing better than for parents to decide to spend their money on private Christian schools ... or to homeschool them using Christian curriculums," said Milton Gaither, an education professor at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, who researches the homeschool movement and wrote a book about it.

Asked whether it seemed ironic that some liberals were now talking about homeschooling, Gaither said no: In a sense, those potential converts would mark a return to the fold of left-wing parents who gave helped give birth to the movement in the early 1970s.

"If they take it seriously enough and do it, they will find themselves in world populated by conservative Christians and people like Betsy DeVos," he said.

Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute, an advocacy group, said it would make sense if parents resisted new government leadership by choosing to teach their kids themselves.

"It's exactly what the modern homeschool movement has been doing for 30 years," he said.