Information behind DeVos irony: NBC News discovers that liberal homeschoolers do exist

Back in the days of intense Harry Potter warfare, I wrote an "On Religion" column in which a very articulate mother explained why she was seriously considering homeschooling her child.

First of all, she said it was clear that her local public schools didn't take religion all that seriously. A kind of watered-down faith was OK, but she was sure that her family's intense religious beliefs and traditions would clash with the culture in nearby schools. She didn't want to have to compromise her family's beliefs in order to fit in.

Then there those omnipresent books about a certain young wizard. She told me: 

"The whole Harry Potter thing has just taken off and glamorized everything. It makes it seem like all of this is about spells and magic. ... It can be hard to get children to remember that what we're about is faith and spirituality. ... Many pagan parents consider Harry Potter a mixed blessing."

This mother, you see, was part of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and the author of a book called "Pagan Parenting." And she was preparing for life as a homeschooling mom.

I thought about this anecdote when I read the piece that ran with this headline: "DeVos Backlash Sees Parents Threatening to Homeschool Kids."

All kinds of people were passing this URL around online, laughing at the irony of that statement. However, it quickly became clear that reporter Jon Schuppe not only saw the irony, but understood it. Here is the overture on this surprisingly nuanced piece: 

Among the initial opposition to Betsy DeVos' confirmation this week as education secretary were calls on social media by parents, including liberals, to start homeschooling their children.
That reaction to DeVos -- a billionaire school-choice advocate who has never worked, attended or sent her kids to a public school -- reflects how polarizing her nomination was.
It also comes layered with paradox. That's because DeVos, whom the Senate confirmed Tuesday to head the Education Department, is herself a big proponent of homeschooling.

The NBC piece backed that up with this direct quote from DeVos:

"We've seen more and more people opt for homeschooling, including in urban areas. What you're seeing is parents who are fed up with their lack of power to do anything about where their kids are assigned to go to school. To the extent that homeschooling puts parents back in charge of their kids' education, more power to them."

But, wait, aren't homeschoolers all rightwing Calvinist or trad-Catholic types who dress their minivan-stretching families in clothing inspired by the Little House On The Prairie fashion guides?

Schuppe accurately notes that the truth is more complex than that. Yes, the norm in homeschooling land tends to be "conservative Christians who resist government oversight." That's the negative way of stating their motives, but that is accurate. However, this piece also notes -- again, this is accurate -- that members of the homeschooling movement "span the political spectrum."

At some point, you know that the story is going to have to turn to an expert to explain some of these details.

In this case, NBC -- I would assume an online search did the trick (finding the book "Homeschool: An American History") -- found an academic at an evangelical Protestant school that is known as a rather progressive campus. This is not the kind of place where one automatically expects to find a DeVos fan club.

This passage from the piece is a bit long, but it's essential:

Until her nomination, DeVos served as chairwoman of the American Federation of Children, a group that advocates for education savings accounts, which redirect public school funds for use by parents to pay for other options, including expenses associated with homeschooling. DeVos could push for states to implement them.
"DeVos would love nothing better than for parents to decide to spend their money on private Christian schools ... or to homeschool them using Christian curriculums," said Milton Gaither, an education professor at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, who researches the homeschool movement and wrote a book about it.
Asked whether it seemed ironic that some liberals were now talking about homeschooling, Gaither said no: In a sense, those potential converts would mark a return to the fold of left-wing parents who gave helped give birth to the movement in the early 1970s.
"If they take it seriously enough and do it, they will find themselves in world populated by conservative Christians and people like Betsy DeVos," he said.

Once again, the wording in this part of the piece -- take that "education savings accounts" reference -- is accurate, but rather one-sided. Many activists on the DeVos side of that argument would say that parents are, in effect, receiving some of their own tax dollars back from the government so that they can choose what to do with those funds. Yes, this form of choice is fiercely opposed by the public-school establishment and by many who see this as a violation of church-state separation (since many parents choose faith-driven educational alternatives, including homeschooling materials).

The bottom line: There was much more to this story than an ironic chuckle or two.

This is a topic worthy of further exploration, if only to probe whether there are many feminist homeschoolers, LGBTQ homeschoolers, liberal Jewish homeschoolers, progressive Catholic homeschoolers and others who simply don't fit into the templates of America's educational establishment. To what degree have these niche-busters made the full leap into being pro-choice on matters of educational funding?

Bravo to the NBC News team for recognizing that this issue exists. You see, irony is a good thing, especially when it leads to interesting information.

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