When It Comes To Homeschooling, This Man Could Teach Us All A Lesson
Mike Smith has been battling for the legal rights of homeschooling families for nearly four decades — first as a homeschool parent, and now as president of Home School Legal Defense Association. Smith, along with ADF President and CEO Michael Farris, founded HSLDA in 1983 to protect the right of families to provide personalized, at-home learning for their children.
Smith’s view of education took a profound turn in 1981, when he heard a radio program that introduced him to the idea of homeschooling. He and his wife, Elizabeth, began homeschooling to meet the academic and social needs of their children, but soon came to value its many other benefits, including spiritual development and family integrity. Three of their four children, now adults, were homeschooled.
An attorney, Smith began defending homeschooling in California both in court and before the legislature after HSLDA’s founding. He joined the organization full time in 1987, serving as its vice president until becoming president in 2000. Today, HSLDA provides over 100,000 member families with legal representation, educational consulting, and practical resources.
F&J: You and your wife were pioneers in homeschooling. What challenges did you face when at-home education was in its infancy?
MS: At that time, in 1981, we had two children in private school and were not satisfied with the results. We attended a homeschool conference after being exposed to homeschooling on the radio, not knowing whether we’d ever do it or not. But out of that, we said, “Let’s give this a try.” There weren’t many homeschoolers, so there were few support groups my wife could meet with. And there wasn’t any curriculum designed for homeschoolers at that time.
Almost immediately, we found out that California was not a homeschool-friendly state. The Department of Education took a position that unless you were a certified teacher or were paying a tutor to teach your child, you couldn’t homeschool. I was able to legally defend our right to homeschool. Then other homeschooling families started to reach out to me, asking, “Can you help us? Because we’re being told that if we continue this, they’re going to remove our children or put us in jail.”
F&J: And that led you to start an association to defend homeschooling families?
MS: Yes. I met Mike Farris and his wife, Vickie, at a homeschool conference, and found that they were facing the same thing in Washington state, where they lived at the time. Back then, you had to make constitutional arguments to homeschool. You had to file briefs. That cost a lot of money, and most families could not afford a lawyer to do all that. So Mike had the idea of forming a community of homeschool families who would stand up and fight for their right to homeschool. The membership would be $100 a year, which would give families access to legal counsel. My initial response was, “I wish I’d thought of it myself.” It was that good. And he asked, “Well, how would you like to be in on the ground floor?” I accepted, and we formed a partnership.
F&J: How have legal efforts made it easier for families to educate their children at home?
MS: In the early days, homeschooling was difficult because most states did not have a way that parents could homeschool legally. The states went after them. So we started defending these families, one at a time — and as we won cases, those victories would apply throughout the state where we were. We also started legislatively working state after state, introducing homeschool laws. And now homeschooling is recognized as legal in some form or fashion in every state. And it was through God’s grace, because we saw over and over again how God intervened to help us win.
F&J: What’s one of the ways you’ve seen God intervene?
MS: Many years ago, Nevada’s Board of Education introduced a regulation that would have tightened up requirements for homeschoolers. They knew they didn’t have to worry about most homeschooling parents — but because of outliers who would not be diligent about teaching their kids, they felt they had to monitor all of them. I went to the hearing where the regulation was to be discussed, and got there early. The door to the room was open, so I walked in and sat down. I listened as they revoked a teacher’s certificate because he had molested two teenage girls.
Our matter was next on the agenda. I stood up and said, “I probably shouldn’t have been present during this hearing. But you did the right thing. You properly executed justice against this teacher. But I didn’t hear you offer to follow all the other good teachers around to monitor what they’re doing. Because that wouldn’t be right, would it?
But that’s what you’re doing here, with our homeschool families.” And by the grace of God, they agreed. They took a vote, and decided not to add the regulation. If I hadn’t been there early, I wouldn’t have made that argument. We’ve seen story after story of how it was obvious that God intervened to raise this movement up.
F&J: It’s been said that COVID-19 has made every family a homeschooling family. Has the pandemic helped parents better understand at-home education?
MS: I hate this COVID thing. It’s terrible. But it is making parents think about their children’s education, which is really important. A lot of states are not doing in-person schooling, so they’re sticking kids in front of a computer all day long. Parents are realizing that, uh-oh, this is not going to work. So tons of families are having to reconsider how they want to direct their child’s education and how they’re going to take a more active role.
I have a neighbor who never would have thought about homeschooling. But when she and her husband found out their kids would have to sit in front of a computer five, six hours a day, they thought, “No way would we do that to our child.” So they’re homeschooling today. And I think more and more parents are going to decide to take control of their children’s education.
F&J: How has ADF supported your efforts?
MS: ADF has been a very strong supporter financially through its granting program. They’ve also helped us overseas. Germany has been hostile to homeschooling. It’s illegal; nobody can homeschool in Germany. ADF International has come alongside and partnered with us, and been a tremendous help in supporting that. It’s an uphill battle to win anything. But ADF does win, and they have the expertise to do it. Their attorneys over there are fantastic, and it’s been great working with them.
Learn more about Home School Legal Defense Association at hslda.org.