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Grey Matters: How Homeschooling Made Me Politically Homeless

by Jackie Orsi

A pang of painful recognition and sympathy went through me when I read my last issue of The Link. In "Colfax Corner" someone identified as "R. D." of Berkeley, CA posed the following question: I consider myself to be one of those rare birds, something of a liberal, and many of my friends are liberals. So what do I tell them when they say that I am being an elitist by teaching my kids at home? They argue that we're depriving the public schools of the presence of our bright, highly-motivated daughters, and that we should be trying to change the schools, not abandoning them. Should I become a conservative?

David and Micki gave the questioner some thought-provoking questions to fire back at her critics, especially in answer to the charge of elitism. I couldn't help thinking that there was much more that can be said to "R. D." and I am just the girl to say it. This is precisely the kind of grey matter that I specialize in, for, you see, I have been living in a political no man's land since I began homeschooling nine years ago.

I was a liberal then. Lots of us Baby Boomers were. Aw, come on! Admit it. You probably were, too. I was a liberal because I had thoughtfully chosen to be a liberal during the Vietnam War. I make no apologies about opposing the war and for wanting to see our national wealth and energy diverted to helping the poor and disadvantaged. I kept on being a liberal for many years thereafter because nothing happened to make me rethink my opinions. I kind of dozed off politically, to tell you the truth. In my own defense, I will say that I was grappling with diapers and teething and a lot of other crucial issues at the time.

Then, in 1989, our family moved to California. We were shocked to find public schools inferior and private schools expensive. What could we do? We were forced to choose homeschooling. Now, of course, I see it as the kindest last-resort scenario that ever came our way, but it was a drastic decision for us. Homeschooling proceeded to turn us upside down. It changed virtually every aspect of our lives, including our political views. Casting one's lot with an unpopular, misunderstood minority does tend to shine a harsh light on one's values and beliefs, you know? So one day, I looked in the mirror and, like R. D., I said, "Hey, are you sure you're still a liberal?"

Unlike R. D.'s circumstances, it wasn't the charges of elitism that got to me. What threw me into a sustained reanalysis of my political opinions was the government's challenge to my right to homeschool. I had the dubious distinction of residing in California's most hostile legal climate. Many counties in the state were confrontational in those days, but San Mateo took the prize. The County routinely menaced homeschoolers with prosecution threats, waving their interpretation of state law in our faces. Not long after I took lead of my local support group, the County singled out a member family and filed truancy charges against the mother and her child. Because of my activism in defending that family, I was warned through channels that I would be the next person charged. The County Attendance and Welfare Officer told my friend, "Jackie Orsi may have to be prosecuted." My friend neatly replied, "You'll have a tiger by the tail if you do." The gentleman sighed and said, "Yes, I know."

Some tiger! I was terrified! I was also angry. The expectation, nay, the insistence of the State that my children were theirs to command appeared to me at once astonishing, ludicrous, infuriating, outrageous, and utterly unacceptable. These people were telling me that I was incapable of raising and educating my children properly, and that they, through the medium of public schooling, could do the job better. Moreover, they said I had no right to overrule them; my children belonged to them, they implied, and the State would make me comply. "Here's what you should do. Here's what you must do," they said.

I had had this notion that Americans are free. Here suddenly my family's freedom was under siege by the government that was supposed to serve me and represent me. Where the hell had freedom gone?

I have never been the same since. I have since reconceived my entire understanding of the role of government and so much more. From that day on I have looked to have less government in my life and in other people's lives. First of all, if it was the "liberal" agenda to compel my children to attend school, then I was a "liberal" no more! So did that automatically make me a conservative? It did not. I wasn't about to change horses and gallop off in the opposite direction. My days of mindless galloping were over.

The Golden Rule kicked in around that time. I looked at my life and discovered that I was guilty of the same kind of controlling arrogance that underlies compulsory attendance laws and is practiced by legions of public school administrators. In many aspects of daily life, I thought I knew how other people should live, and I was in the habit of taking those presumptions into the voting booth with me. Well, as a homeschooler, if I didn't want other people telling me how to live, I darn well better give up telling them how to live. So I began to respect other people's private decisions to a far greater degree than I had before. Now, when the actions of other people are not hurting me or mine, I endeavor to stand back a pace and let them be.

I'm not saying I gave up being opinionated about other people. Opinions? I got a million of them! Making moral judgments is an essential part of personal and community life. Morality is the code that actually makes society work. We must all be unafraid to engage in the exchange of moral messages. We must strive toward a common moral understanding (all the while knowing that actually arriving at a mass agreement would be the most disagreeable of outcomes. But I digress . . . )

It is not wrong to entertain thoughts that begin, "All people should. . . " But when the determination "All people should . . ." leads to "All people must . . ." that's where I now believe we must restrain ourselves. It is wrong, just plain wrong, to give moral prescriptions the force of law and to use government authority to enforce them. Liberals want to impose their moral agenda through government coercion-and so do conservatives! Conservatives have their own equally lengthy list of laws they are just itching to enact. Both sides are guilty of using government to control people's private lives. Pick one and you choose your poison. I say "No, thank you" to both!

Homeschooling has made me generally suspicious of all the politicos who run around capitol buildings wanting to fix things. My thinking comes closest to being libertarian these days, but I am not willing to go impetuously in that direction either. I see too many shades of grey to accept oversimplified black-and-white solutions to our social problems. We have a major government-dependency problem in America, but I'm not sure we can solve it by going cold-turkey. In his book Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, libertarian writer Charles Murray describes most persuasively how welfare deeply harms the people it means to help. I found myself in total agreement with his analysis of the problem, but not with his remedy. He suggests that the only way out is to summarily cease welfare payments. He refers to it as the Alexandrian solution; "cut the knot, for there is no way to untie it." The short term consequences of such a drastic step-the toll of hunger, homelessness and suffering-are almost unimaginable. There's got to be a better way. I have some residual faith in human ingenuity that we can find a more humane way out of society's welfare trap. (I guess there's a flicker of liberal idealism still burning in me after all.)

I apologize. I am being totally too philosophical here. Let's talk about what it means to be a homeschooler when it comes to political nuts and bolts. Well, it turns out homeschooling made me politically homeless on a practical level, too. Let me tell you the surprising political lesson I learned over the years of working on legislation monitoring for the California Homeschool Network: At this time, homeschoolers have no natural political allies. What we have instead is a peculiar assortment of political bedfellows, none of whom understand us fully or support us directly.

In the last six or seven years, along with a few other dedicated people from across homeschooling's diverse population, I rolled up my sleeves to keep California homeschooling free. We read the gazillion or so bills proposed annually in the California legislature. At times we acted. Our purposes were to detect any wording in any bill which would negatively affect the liberty of homeschooling families and to stop it cold if we could. Generally we operated on the assumption that the Republican Party is on the side of homeschoolers and the Democratic party is in the pocket of the state's powerful teacher's union, a declared enemy of independent homeschooling. This assumption on occasion proved to be a dangerous oversimplification.

Conservative Republicans did indeed want to cozy up to homeschoolers, and sometimes they worked way too hard to show us their devotion. Every so often, one or another friendly Senator or Assemblyman would try to "help" us by authoring a bill that would give the government's nod to homeschooling or which would provide us with some little privilege. It is ironically true that as much worrisome legislation has emerged from the conservative side as from the liberal side. Each time this occurred, our conservative political "friends" were eager to strike the offensive wording or ditch the bills at homeschoolers' request, but think how much they revealed about themselves when they strayed in this manner: They showed that they have no understanding of homeschoolers' desire to be left alone. They do not see that implicating government in homeschooling is the worst possible development. Frankly, to me they appeared to be no more than political opportunists willing to use the machinery of government for the betterment of their "friends."

The issue of school choice provides yet another example of how crosscutting and complicated homeschooling politics are. Generally the idea of vouchers find support on the Republican/Conservative side of the fence, while Democrats/Liberals (and teachers) oppose them. In California, the major state homeschool organizations have stood in opposition to vouchers for our own compelling reasons. We reason that when public money is given to parents to spend on private schooling, those private schools (and homeschools) will de facto become public schools, subject to the rules, regulations, and audits of the government. It stands to reason that government money leads to government control. As a taxpayer I want to know that my money is being well-managed and well-spent. Don't you feel the same? Are you in the habit of giving money away, no strings attached? So most homeschoolers wisely oppose vouchers. You can bet that homeschoolers and teachers' unions are chagrined and horrified to find themselves political bedfellows on the school choice issue, but bedfellows we are!

Homeschoolers are shrewd to look for help on both sides of the political aisle, as we did recently when the Legislature considered enacting daytime curfews. Daytime curfew laws would give police the power to stop, interrogate, and cite any school-age child in public places during school hours. The defeat of these measures was a great victory for homeschoolers in California. The list of organizations registered in opposition to the bills spanned from the notoriously liberal American Civil Liberties Union to the ultra-conservative Eagle Forum. Where the preservation of freedom is concerned, we'll happily take all the help we can get!

When I began to see the world through the eyes of a homeschooler, I became philosophically homeless in politics. When I began to be active in the interests of homeschoolers, I learned quickly to be pragmatically homeless in politics. I plan to stay that way. Jumping from the liberal bandwagon to the conservative bandwagon was not an answer for me. I want to reserve the right and necessity of making up my mind independently on each issue. I want to bring my own powers of reason to bear. I want to be at various times a liberal, a conservative, a libertarian, an anarchist, or a reactionary. I won't let any one hardened point of view take ownership of my mind ever again.

Leave me to my chosen befuddlement, if you please. Come join me. I think that America stands its best chance of finding solutions to social problems if we would all be less subservient to political doctrines from any quarter. We need to do less labeling and more listening. We need fewer knee-jerk reactions and more careful thought. We need to stop applying force against force.

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