When the modern homeschool movement began in the 1970s, some parents found ways to homeschool under existing laws while others sought permission from local school boards or homeschooled ‘under the radar.’ As the number of families interested in homeschooling grew during the 1980s, legal questions grew. In some cases, existing statutes prohibited homeschooling or were unclear on its legality; in other cases, local superintendents became unwilling to work with homeschool parents (or vice versa). Early homeschool promoters Raymond Moore and John Holt traveled around the country testifying in defense of homeschool parents who were taken to court, and a number of existing legal groups played a part as well. By the early 1990s homeschooling was legal in every state, largely as a result of legislative change at the state level.
While the legality of homeschooling is no longer in question, the battles of the 1980s remain a part of many homeschool parents’ communal memory. Along with this memory comes a question: Is it worth laying out the money to become a member of one of several homeschool legal protection organizations currently in existence? These organizations charge homeschool parents an annual membership fee and, in exchange, defend their members should they run into homeschooling-related legal problems. If you are a homeschool parent pondering whether it is worth purchasing a membership from one of these organizations, here are several points to consider.
You don’t need an attorney on retainer to drive a car. In the same way, you don’t need an attorney on retainer to homeschool. Not only is homeschooling legal, the practice has also become increasingly socially acceptable over the past several decades and is no longer viewed with the suspicion it once was. There are occasionally superintendents who overstep, but this is relatively rare and can in most cases be corrected by simply pointing the official to state law. In the vast majority of cases, simply following your state’s homeschool law and complying with its requirements will be sufficient.
Some homeschool protection organizations have a history of taking positions and engaging in advocacy on issues which are unrelated to homeschooling, such as opposing marriage equality. Ask whether an organization engages in lobbying in addition to offering legal counsel, and make sure you investigate an organization’s lobbying efforts to ensure that you are comfortable with your membership fees being used to fund these causes. In some cases, homeschool protection organizations have been known to defend parents who are abusive or who are not educating their children. Make sure you know what your money is supporting.
Homeschool protection organizations that provide legal services to dues-paying members frequently depend on selling memberships to turn a profit. This gives them an incentive to convince homeschooling parents that legal trouble is inevitable. Such organizations may unnecessarily antagonize government officials, turning a minor misunderstanding into a major legal event and then using the situation to sell memberships to their organization. They may also exaggerate the severity of conflicts in their marketing materials. Be judicious when evaluating information from organizations whose profits depend on convincing you that homeschooling without their support is dangerous or risky.
Homeschool protection organizations do not offer legal insurance. In the unlikely event that your homeschool encounters a legal challenge, you may find that your membership in a homeschool protection organization does not entitle you to pro bono representation. If the possible cost of securing legal representation is a concern for you, you may be best served by purchasing a legal insurance plan rather than membership in a homeschool protection organization. Legal insurance plans cover a variety of legal needs and come with a contract guaranteeing you certain services.
If you do get into legal trouble, a local attorney will likely serve you better than a national homeschool protection organization. First, local attorneys with experience in family court or your jurisdiction’s equivalent are likely to have personal connections with the social workers, school officials, and court personnel who will be handling your case. That local knowledge—which a national organization is unlikely to have—will help an attorney de-escalate and resolve the situation. Second, national homeschool protection organizations may have incentives to escalate situations rather than simply resolving them: they may hope to create test cases and set legal precedent; or they may hope to use the situation to convince other parents to purchase memberships. A local attorney, in contrast, benefits most from resolving the situation to your satisfaction.