Lest we be tempted to take our homeschooling rights for granted, Peter Allison, a homeschooling father in Texas, has been studying a court case that marked the tipping point in a long battle to secure those rights.
The year was 1987; the case was Leeper v. Arlington; the plaintiffs were homeschooling families; the defendant, the public school establishment of Texas, 1,063 individual school districts. The attorney who pled the case for the homeschoolers was Shelby Sharpe, and this is what he had to say about it:
"After the victory that God gave us in that case, the prosecutions [of homeschoolers] stopped in all the other forty-nine states."[i]
"The Leeper case did finally establish the legality of homeschooling," Peter Allison said. "I don't think there'll be any more cases like it."
Indispensable to the success of the case, Shelby Sharpe recalled, was the performance of R. J. Rushdoony as an expert witness for the plaintiffs. Today, twenty-five years later, we know Dr. Rushdoony as the founder of the Chalcedon Foundation. But he will also be remembered in history as the father of American homeschooling.
"Dr. Rushdoony was a convincing and compelling witness, and played a big role in swinging the case in favor of homeschooling," Allison said. "He was extremely knowledgeable about Texas and its laws-plus he brought to the witness stand his own unique set of gifts and abilities."
Shelby Sharpe put it even more strongly.
"His testimony was way beyond anything I'd hoped for," Sharpe said. "It was one of the few times in my career that I ever saw a witness destroy the attorney who was trying to examine him."[ii]
Rushdoony testified in many such cases all over the country. In the Leeper case, said Allison, he triumphed.
A Surprise Strategy
To establish homeschoolers' rights in Texas, Allison said, Shelby Sharpe took a unique approach. Instead of asking the Texas legislature to pass a new law, Sharpe convinced homeschoolers that the old law, enacted back in 1915, already established their right to educate their own children at home. And instead of trying to defend that right on a case-by-case basis, Sharpe convinced the homeschoolers to attack-demanding a declaratory judgment in their favor against more than a thousand Texas school districts.
"Was homeschooling legal? That was the big question," Allison said. "Shelby Sharpe said that the 1915 law, all the prosecutions notwithstanding, says that homeschooling is legal. He said, ‘The law of 1915 is good. We need a court case, not a new law.'"
Many homeschooling families were being prosecuted in Texas, he said. But this time it would be the public school establishment that would be prosecuted.
Sharpe's argument was that Texas' 1915 compulsory school attendance law specifically exempted private school students from having to go to public school. During the decade of the Nineteen-teens, Sharpe said, sixty percent of school-age children in Texas were being educated at home. "For most Texas families when the law was passed, homeschooling was what you had. So the only meaning the law could have had was that private school meant homeschooling."
Sharpe's surprising strategy, tied to existing law, along with the strong contributions of Rushdoony and some of the other witnesses, led to a victory which continues to bless homeschooling families to this day.
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
The oldest of six children, Peter Allison attended public school in grades 1-3, then went on to a Christian school, and was homeschooled in his teenage years.
"We lived in California at the time, during the mid-1970s," he said. "Homeschooling was considered something that was very far out-the only people who were doing it were hippies. But in Texas at the same time, parents were going to jail for homeschooling their children."
Allison has seven children of his own, all homeschooled (five finished, two to go). He is a pastor at Crown and Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church, and an electrical engineer, in Conroe, Texas. He also serves as a volunteer in Chalcedon's Extend The Reach program (ETR), representing Chalcedon at homeschooling conferences and other events in his part of Texas.
"After grad school, I always wanted to come back to Texas because of the homeschooling freedom there," he said. "We lived in Pennsylvania for a while, but moved because the homeschooling regulations there were onerous."
Despite the Leeper case, he said, homeschooling still has its opponents. An Internet search along the lines of, say, "teachers against homeschooling," will yield many examples.[iii]
"They won't try, anymore, to outlaw homeschooling," Allison said. "They'll try to kill it by regulation, by increasing parents' expenses."
But homeschooling "is continuing to grow," said Shelby Sharpe, partly because "the public schools are abysmal."
"The challenge now is," Allison said, "that our success could be our downfall-because so many non-religious families are homeschooling now."
Rushdoony's version of Christian homeschooling as a long-term strategy for regenerating America's culture, church, business, and politics continues to inspire homeschooling families and Christian commentators. He had many miles to go, and many battles to fight, before he took the stand in Leeper.
"In the Leeper case," said Allison, "there was one thing Dr. Rushdoony told the court that was really important, and something that should be remember by homeschoolers today. He said that if you don't have the proper motivation in the family, no kind of education will work."
But thanks to the sacrifices made by homeschooling families twenty-five years ago and more, and the leadership of R. J. Rushdoony and many others, Christian homeschooling is still working today.
[i] All quotes by Shelby Sharpe are from his interview by Andrea Schwartz, http://chalcedon.edu/blog/2011/5/9/law-and-liberty-podcast-j-shelby-sharpe-remembers-rush/
[ii] The podcast of the Shelby Sharpe interview provides a link to the courtroom transcript of Dr. Rushdoony's entire testimony.
[iii] A notably obnoxious example of this is provided by "The case against homeschooling" by Jesse Scaccia on the Teacher, Revised website, http://teacherrevised.org/2009/05/30/the-case-against-homeschooling/ . Posted in 2009, the editors of the site recently added a disclaimer: "Please read, but take it with a grain of salt. TeacherRevised supports the right of any parent to homeschool their child." I think we might take that disclaimer as a victory of sorts.
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.