A Fundamental Education : To Shield Their Children From the Secular Ways of Public School, Parents of the Religious Right Are Turning to Teaching at Home
KEN EMMIL NEVER GOT A CHANCE to talk to the dark-haired boy who came out for three preseason drills with the Colville Indians football team. Emmil, the high school coach in the small Eastern Washington town of Colville, remembers only that the boy joined in 50-yard sprints with the other players and that “he seemed real happy to be here.”
But then, the boy just stopped coming to practice. Emmil never knew why.
The mysterious disappearance would have been easier to understand if Emmil had known that 16-year-old Josh Stecker is educated solely at home, by his parents. What the football coach had witnessed was the flirtation of a Christian home schooler with the outside world. Final score: God 1, World 0.
Like a growing number of fundamentalist Christians whose children do not attend school, Josh’s parents teach him and his five brothers and sisters at home, shielding them from peer pressure and what they regard as the insidious secular-humanist bias of the public schools. God and the Bible, not humankind, should be at the heart of every lesson, they say.
The Steckers strive to purify their home of worldly influences. They don’t watch TV. The only radio they listen to is a Christian station broadcast from Spokane. They have discontinued their magazine subscriptions. Josh’s mother, Karla, says she even stopped buying Family Circle when she read what she considered an overly graphic article on rape. The Steckers have also purged their record shelves of any music--secular or Christian--with a sensual backbeat.
Josh is taught from a Christian curriculum; he associates almost exclusively with children who are also Christian home schoolers. He doesn’t date. On his 16th birthday, his father gave him a ring symbolizing the boy’s promise to God to remain chaste until he marries.
In explaining why they separate their children from society, the Steckers and other home-school parents often use the analogy of a greenhouse: You don’t put a fragile plant outside until it’s strong enough to withstand the weather. “My children need the protection I can give them until they’re strong enough to stand on their own,” Sid Stecker says.
So it was a problem for the family when Josh decided to venture out into the weather by playing football. He would have continued to home-school, joining the team after hours.
“Josh may love football, but locker rooms are not the best place to be uplifted,” his mother says. “I know what goes on on the team buses. He’ll be disappointed if we say no, but God gave him parents as an authority.”
Josh was insistent at first about trying out for the team. But, after three workouts, he and his family agreed that Josh would not become a Colville Indian after all. “I don’t feel like I’m in a stage where I can resist all the world’s temptations,” Josh says. “Maybe next year I’ll be spiritually stronger.”
IN THE LATE 1960s, HOME SCHOOLING BLOSSOMED as the utopian alternative of bell-bottomed fathers and patchouli-scented mothers. Today there’s a second boom, with an entirely different profile. The new home schoolers are religious fundamentalists, people whose views are diametrically opposed to those of the free-thinking pioneers. The new movement is more organized than the old, with its own state and national groups, magazines, newsletters and curriculum publishers.
It’s difficult to estimate the numbers of Christian home educators because each state has different rules for registering home-taught students. Also, many religiously motivated home-school families don’t register with local school districts because they oppose government control. “God said it’s the father’s duty to educate his children, not the state’s,” says Keith Jones, another Colville parent who teaches his children at home.
Some Christian home-school publications estimate that there are as many as 1 million home-schooled children in the United States. But what is probably a more reliable figure comes from Patricia Lines, a researcher who has studied such populations for the U.S. Department of Education. Taking into account unregistered home schoolers, Lines estimates that 250,000 to 350,000 children were schooled at home in 1990. That’s up from a 1983 estimate of 60,000 to 125,00.
Leaders in the Christian home-school movement contend that as many as 90% of all home-school families now teach from a fundamentalist Christian perspective. Other sources place the figure far lower. Whatever the percentages, “Christians tend to dominate in the home-education community,” says J. Gary Knowles, a home-education specialist who is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Education. “They are strong on networking, and they are persuasive and vocal.” Christian home-school leader Michael Farris, a Virginia attorney, says he envisions a “culture-shaking” Christian revival led by home-schooled youth that would eventually topple the financial monopoly of public schools and free tax dollars for Christian education. Christian home-school leaders don’t deny they are indoctrinating their children with their political beliefs, and they maintain it is their right to do so. “Education has always been a tool of political and religious warfare,” says Oregon home-school leader Gregg Harris. “The question is, who has the right to wield that power--parents or the state?”
SET IN A SCENIC, NARROW valley 65 miles north of Spokane, Colville is an Old West-style town that resembles a set for the television series “Northern Exposure,” complete with an occasional moose on the main street.
Colville is located in a stronghold of Bible-based home education. Politically conservative and geographically isolated, the region extends as far east as Missoula, Mont., and to Ellensburg, Wash., in the west. The Cascade Mountains act as a filter against liberal influences from the more populated west side of the state. “Home schoolers see this as our own little duchy,” says Mike Smith, director of the Washington Assn. of Teaching Christian Homes, an organization of Christian home-school parents. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are 1,500 home-school families within 100 miles of Spokane.”
The Steckers began home-schooling their children in Portland, Ore., but moved to Colville to further limit the family’s contact with worldly influences. Three families relocated from Portland along with the Steckers. One family, Keith and Debby Jones and their five children, moved into a tumbledown farmhouse outside Colville and are attempting to build a self-sufficient lifestyle. They farm rye and can much of their own food.
A staunch patriarch (“The final decision is up to me”), Keith Jones says his family is “living on the cutting edge of a return to biblical truth,” a goal best achieved in rural America. “As soon as somebody starts home schooling, the first thing that happens is they begin reacting against government control,” Jones says. “The second thing that happens is they move out of the cities.”
The Colville emigrants all have large families, with a total of 23 children. They have created a small community with their own softball league, and in the summers they all go camping on the Columbia River. Every few weeks, the home-school mothers visit Spokane for a long day of grocery shopping, buying 25-pound sacks of oats, wheat, seeds, nuts, raisins and cereal. Only one parent works in most home-school families, because the other must remain at home to instruct. Finances are always a concern. The Steckers, for example, must support a family of eight on the $26,000 annual salary Sid Stecker earns as a transportation planner for three counties in northeast Washington.
The Steckers live just outside town in a white farmhouse guarded by weeping willows. Out front, there’s a giant trampoline and a rope swing. Completing the bucolic scene are bikes, cats, puppies and a Welsh pony named Bucky.
There is an aura of calm and order in this household of six children. On a recent morning, Emily, 12, knelt on a chair at the big oak dining-room table, filling out rebate coupons for Brawny towels and Kleenex. She was wearing a long skirt, and, like the other Stecker girls, had the innocent, old-fashioned manner associated with Amish or Mennonite children.
When they decided to educate their children at home, the Steckers had a huge variety of Christian teaching materials to choose from--unlike early home schoolers, who relied on secondhand public-school textbooks. An entire industry has sprung up around Christian home schooling, with hundreds of curriculum publishers offering everything from Bible-story felt boards to textbooks with such titles as “Christian Manhood” and “Little Patriots.”
The Steckers use the Advanced Training Institute of America curriculum. The nondenominational Christian lesson plan--which does not have to conform to state or local curricula--costs $700 for all the children for one academic year. The family gathers at 6:30 a.m. each day for a “wisdom search” led by father Sid. They pray and apply biblical principles to family quandaries--such as Josh’s desire to play football. They’ll end the day with another wisdom search.
In the late morning--after Sid goes to work, while baby Susanna naps and 4-year-old Gabe entertains himself with puzzles or games--the four older Stecker children gather for school around the dining-room table. If the children were in school, Ben would be in 4th grade, Emily in 7th, Livia in 9th and Josh in 11th. Here, they all use the same workbook, which organizes several weeks’ lessons around a single scriptural passage.
On a white board propped against a bookcase, Karla prints the day’s lesson. “And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain. . . .” (Matthew 5). The children turn to their work sheets for this passage, which includes lessons in vocabulary (synonyms and antonyms for “see”), science (the anatomy of the eye), history (a study of the region the multitudes came from) and other subjects. As part of their study of the eye (“And seeing the multitudes . . . "), Karla arranges for her children and the children of another home-school family to visit a local ophthalmologist. (In some communities, home schoolers arrange with public schools to attend certain classes the parents are not equipped to teach--foreign languages, for instance--or to make use of laboratories and other resources.)
The ATIA curriculum is not limited to academics and religious instruction, but addresses all aspects of family life. Sid Stecker shaved his beard because the institute’s literature says, “Beards and long hair are often associated with reaction to authority and lack of morals.” The manual also dictates that “men’s clothing should be masculine and women’s clothing should be feminine.” Livia insists to her mother that they obey this rule, despite Karla’s fondness for jeans. “It’s more modest (to wear skirts) because when you’re wearing pants, guys can think things,” Livia explains.
After the school day is over, Josh sometimes rides his bike into town to trade sports cards with friends outside the Excell market. Whenever they venture into town, home-school children know they may be the targets of stares and questions from other youngsters.
This is particularly true for Keith and Debby Jones’ adopted daughter, Jessica, 13. In addition to being one of those kids who never go to school, Jessica is one of only a few black people in this part of the country. So sometimes she feels doubly like an outsider.
“Why don’t I ever see you at school?” kids ask her.
“Because my parents want me to and because it’s right,” Jessica answers, hoping that will silence her interrogators.
HOME SCHOOLS WERE once the only schools in this country. But with the introduction of public schools in the mid-1800s, parents slowly relinquished responsibility for educating their children, a process that was completed around the turn of the century with compulsory-education laws.
In the late 1960s, reformers such as John Holt and Ivan Illich seized upon home schooling as an answer to increasing dissatisfaction with public education. The ‘60s-style home schools reflected countercultural values, often emphasizing children’s natural affinity for learning and eliminating grades. In general, secular home schoolers believe in greater freedom for children.
Christian home schoolers, on the other hand, venerate authority--coming first from God, then from the father. Academic excellence is often not a priority. As Karla Stecker says, “Our goal is not for our children to be lawyers and doctors but for them to glorify God.”
The public tends to be more familiar with the earlier incarnation of home education, partly because of the extensive publicity given this country’s most famous home schoolers, David and Micki Colfax of Boonville, Calif. The Colfaxes have sent three home-schooled sons to Harvard. Yet, because they do not identify themselves as Christian home schoolers, the Colfaxes are not representative of the families currently swelling those ranks. “These (fundamentalist home-school leaders) are people with a very clear political agenda--to Christianize education--and this is their lever,” David Colfax says. “They stand for everything that we reject, philosophically and personally.”
Christian home schooling gathered steam in the mid-'80s as more and more fundamentalist parents became frustrated with what they perceived as an anti-God bias in public schools. Specifically, these parents object to education about sex, AIDS and the theory of evolution. They criticize the lack of patriotism in classrooms and abhor any course of study that smacks of the occult or New Age. Feminism and environmentalism are also suspect.
Not surprisingly, the movement is closely aligned with the religious right. In many communities, vocal opponents of abortion and those who push for censorship of textbooks (i.e., deleting references to evolution and occultism) are also home schoolers.
“We are witnessing a steady stream of refugees from the anti-Christian pogrom being conducted in the schools by dedicated humanists,” wrote Michael Farris in Teaching Home, a Christian home-education magazine.
The most prominent national spokesman for Christian home schooling, Farris has brought cases for censorship of school textbooks and against pornography, abortion, the ERA and gay rights. He is currently president of the Home School Legal Defense Assn., a Virginia-based organization that defends Christian home-school families in court. Twenty thousand families pay $100 annually to retain the association’s services in case their right to teach their children is challenged by school authorities.
Parents who fail to comply with local laws governing home schooling can be charged with truancy or, in rare cases, educational neglect, a juvenile court matter, says Michael Smith, vice president of the HSLDA.
“Ninety-nine percent of our work is mediating and negotiating between families and school districts,” Smith says, adding that less than 2% of the association’s cases go to court. No parent the group has represented has gone to jail, and none has had to stop home schooling because of a court order, Smith says.
While current laws are favorable to home education, the right to teach children at home was not won without a fight. In the early years of the movement, many observers argued that children schooled by their parents would not be properly educated or socialized. Once these fears were laid to rest by researchers, most of the criticism abated. It was shown, for instance, that early home schoolers did as well or slightly better than traditionally educated children on achievement tests.
Despite the reservations of groups such as the National Education Assn. and the National Assn. of Elementary School Principals, home education is legal in every state, and most have passed laws in recent years making it easier than ever before. In many states, parents with no formal training as teachers--some without high school diplomas--teach their children with little or no supervision.
In Washington state, for example, parents are supposed to submit an affidavit of intent and have their children tested annually for achievement levels. But many parents don’t bother to do either--and few face repercussions.
In California, home schoolers can register for independent study through the schools--an option most reject on philosophical grounds--or they may register as private schools. Most home schools aren’t actually private schools because they don’t solicit business, says Roger Wolfertz, assistant general counsel for the California Department of Education. Therefore, most of the state’s home schoolers are technically truant, he says, although, as far as he knows, no parents have been challenged on this point recently.
Christian home schoolers see states such as California as the most conducive to home education because parents need not be certified to teach, and no testing of students or monitoring by local school officials is mandated. Least favorable, they say, is Michigan, which requires home instructors to have a teaching certificate--just like public- and private-school teachers. Most states fall between these extremes.
One thing on which the Christian and secular contingents agree is the need for further liberalization of home-school laws. So, despite considerable friction, secular and Christian home educators attempt to present a united front.
“If this gets pegged as a secular-versus-Christian issue, our freedoms are down the tube,” says Mark Hegener, co-editor and publisher of Home Education magazine. “All these fundamentalists--their freedoms are tied to mine.”
The wholesome image of fundamentalist home schooling in particular has been threatened in recent years as the isolation that can accompany it has been associated with instances of child abuse.
While home schooling is not harmful in itself, warns Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network, “the isolation of children removes the accountability of adults. When there’s a curtain drawn, that’s when abuse can creep in. And we’ve certainly seen that home schooling is an effective way to shield the abuse of children from the public eye.”
Such a case occurred in 1988, when an 8-year-old girl died and dozens of children were beaten while under the supervision of Ecclesia, the Watts-based church group that founded a ranch in Oregon. Four members of the church are serving time for first-degree manslaughter. A federal trial is still pending. Most of the children were schooled at home by family and church members, a practice that was part of a conspiracy to “break the children’s will and spirit,” according to Assistant U.S. Atty. Stephen Peifer.
In a 1987 case, a 10-year-old Spokane boy, Aaron Norman, died of untreated diabetes. His family belonged to the No-Name Fellowship, a Bible-based cult that encourages home education. Because Aaron was being home-schooled, his deteriorating physical condition was not noticed as it might have been in public or private school, says Clark Colwell, chief criminal deputy for Spokane County. Douglas Kleber, leader of the No-Name Fellowship, two church members and a pastor of the church pleaded guilty to second-degree criminal mistreatment. Aaron Norman’s father is serving time for first-degree manslaughter.
Rita Swan, director of Child Inc., a group that monitors cases of religiously based medical neglect, maintains that “the isolationist mind-set and claims of superior truth” sometimes found among Christian home educators can add up to “a formula for child abuse.”
In extreme cases, Christian home-school families may take on some of the characteristics of a cult. “I would say there are certain parallels (to cult-like behavior),” says Ronald Enroth, professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara and an expert on aberrant church groups. “There is the same kind of authoritarianism, control and estrangement from the larger society,” he says.
Not all Christian home schoolers isolate their children, of course. Some expose them to the larger world in small doses, hoping to achieve, as one parent put it, “insulation without isolation.”
Bringing up child-abuse cases in conjunction with Christian home schooling angers Michael Farris. “It’s a cheap shot,” he says. “The only answer to preventing all child abuse is to have a policeman living in every home in America.”
KARLA STECKER’S EARTHY APpearance could fool people into thinking she was one of the liberal back-to-the-land types who also abound in the lightly populated northeastern corner of Washington. A thin woman with an open, inquiring expression, she wears long denim skirts; her curly dark hair falls loose, at shoulder length. Like her son Josh, she is quiet and thoughtful.
Karla used to work in graphics but now restricts herself to home full time, with no outside commitments. “There really isn’t anything else I desire to do at this point,” she says.
She began dating Sid when both were students at Walla Walla Community College. Though they were raised as churchgoers, both Sid and Karla had turned away from religion at the time they met. As a teen-ager, Sid rebelled against a Mormon upbringing he perceived as a pack of arbitrary rules. For a time, he pursued “self-gratification.” He doesn’t elaborate, except to say, “I was 18 in 1968,” as if that explains it all. Sid has a square, boyish face and wears round, gold-rimmed spectacles--a likable, shy man with an appealing smile.
After Sid and Karla were married in 1971, they were reintroduced to churchgoing. When their first child, Josh, reached school age, they enrolled him in a private Christian school. Then, following a progression typical in home-school families, they took the next step in living their faith.
“We began learning more about what God expected of us as parents,” Sid says, paraphrasing the passage from Deuteronomy often cited as a mandate for home schooling: “Fathers, teach your child as you sit down, as you stand up, as you rise up. . . .”
Sid says he does not feel he is repeating the mistakes his parents made--imposing rules dictatorially. “I want my children to question what they’re doing,” he says. “I want them to obey, but I want them to choose to obey.”
Obedience is at the heart of Christian home schooling. Typically, children are taught to obey God and parents; if they do not, they risk falling prey to Satan. It’s as if we all are diamonds in the rough, Karla explains, “and God is chipping away at us and making us more beautiful through authority. I believe God gave children parents to make decisions for them,” she adds. “I am not an advocate of the rights of the child.”
The rebellions of the older children, Josh and Livia, have been brief and easily quashed. Josh’s desire to play football dissolved when he convinced himself that he would be safer from evil at home. Livia’s was the conflict that comes up most frequently in home-school families: She wanted to go to school.
Livia is slicing apricots for apricot bread in the farmhouse kitchen. Her homemade flowered jumper reaches mid-calf, and her wavy brown, blunt-cut hair is held back with a barrette. She is standing on the clean-swept linoleum floor in bright white socks.
“For a while, I was really upset, and I wanted to be in school,” she recalls. “My friends told me about all the boys there, and my cousin has always told me I’d be really popular in school.” This last comment is made apologetically, as if there is something wrong about even thinking such a thing.
Soon after she made known her desire to go to school, Livia attended an introductory seminar for the home-schooling curriculum the family uses. In a mood to reject her parents’ beliefs, Livia found herself rolling her eyes when the speaker talked about the dangers of rock ‘n’ roll.
But then she had a revelation that would eventually bring her back into the fold. Livia turns away from the cutting board and faces a visitor to make her point. “Well, hold on, I said to myself. Is this me talking, or is it Satan talking?”
Once she glimpsed Satan behind her rebellion, Livia changed her mind about school and quickly committed herself to “courtship"--meaning she won’t date until she is ready to marry, and even then suitors will have to ask for the approval of her father.
As with Josh, part of Livia’s turnabout was based on resignation. “I finally realized there wasn’t any point (in arguing) because I was never going to go to school,” she says. Once Livia’s journal was filled with boy talk; now she sits up in her lavender-walled room and asks God to free her from her tendency to flirt. To appease the need for romance, she reads Christian novels such as Janette Oke’s “Love Comes Softly” and “When Breaks the Dawn.”
Livia wants to be a missionary. Her brother Josh plans to go to a Christian college, but “I don’t feel a real need to go to college,” Livia says. She is getting in some pre-missionary practice on the local candidates for conversion, the so-called “park rats"--insolent, punkish kids who loll around Colville’s city park.
To Livia and the other Colville home schoolers, the park rats are a source of fascination. On one hand, they represent everything they’ve been warned about--sex, drugs and secular humanism. On the other, they are free to do all the things home-school kids cannot.
So, it is with a mixture of duty and curiosity that Livia approaches the boys in the park, ignoring their lascivious remarks, to ask: “Do you ever read the Bible?” and “Where do you think you’ll go when you die?”
SID AND KARLA STECKER have had to renounce some cherished parental dreams in order to home-school their children. “It’s been hard realizing my daughter will never go to the prom,” Karla says. “And I’ll never sit in the stands and cheer for my boys. We have to realize our children’s memories won’t be like ours.”
Karla is also aware that someday her children may resent the sacrifices they made in their youth. The Christian home-school movement is so new that there are no completed studies showing what will likely become of children like Josh and Livia Stecker when they reach adulthood. Will they be grateful for their greenhouse upbringing? Or will they be forever angry for the things they were forced to give up?
The latter possibility occasionally gives Karla pause. As she says, “Josh may say until his dying day, ‘The one thing I always wanted to do was play football.’ ”