Julia Mourão Permoser is postdoctoral research fellow of political science at the University of Innsbruck, where her research focuses on the relationship between migration, religion, liberalism, and the European Union. Her research has appeared in the European Journal of Migration and Law, Religion, State, and Society and the Journal of European Public Policy, among others.
Homeschooling is an educational phenomenon that is well known to the American public. It is legal in all states and about 4% of the school-aged population in the United States is educated at home. Parents who choose to homeschool their children do so for a great variety of reasons. Non-ideological motivations for homeschooling include pedagogical preferences, the ability to cater for children’s special needs, and concerns over the quality of public education (Gaither 2009).
Despite the existence of different motivations, the majority of homeschooling parents in the United States are religiously motivated, moral conservatives. In the United States, according to the National Education Survey, over 50% of homeschooling parents declare “a desire to provide religious instruction” and 67% declare “a desire to provide moral instruction” to be an important reason for choosing to homeschool (McQuiggan and Megra 2017, 19).
This is a result of the fact that, starting in the 1980s, homeschooling was adopted by the American Christian right as a strategy to defend “traditional values” in a political context marked by the liberalization of public institutions and of the public sphere following the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s (Downland 2015). In other words, homeschooling became one of the fronts in the American culture war.
Recently, the moral conservative advocacy of homeschooling has been gaining momentum and political clout also beyond the borders of the United States. In 2018, Russia hosted the “Global Home Education Conference,” a major global convention of morally conservative homeschooling advocates with over 1,000 delegates from all over the world. The previous event of this kind had taken place in Brazil in 2016, where, earlier this year the newly elected government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro declared the legalization of homeschooling to be one of its key priorities for the first 100 days in office. These developments are remarkable given the fact that homeschooling as an educational practice is largely alien to these societies, being practiced by only a very small number of families.
What explains the rising political relevance of homeschooling in countries where it is virtually unknown?
The answer lies in the double function that homeschooling exercises for the transnational moral conservative movement, first as a coherence-building topic for moral conservatives worldwide, and second as a door towards reformulating the predominantly individualist understanding of human rights within international organizations and courts.
Achieving Coherence and Reframing Human Rights
Despite its marginal position as a social phenomenon outside the United States, within the moral conservative elite, homeschooling has acquired a place of prominence as one of the topics that conservatives should fight for throughout the world. It reflects moral conservatives’ rejection of state interference with family matters and an opportunity to reclaim the notion that parents are entitled to uncontested authority over their children.
The key to understanding how the homeschooling agenda fits into the broader universe of moral conservativism is the concept of “the natural family.” Conservative homeschooling advocates consider the family as a unit that precedes the state and society and is ontologically separate from it. They see the family as a “natural” unit by contrast to state and society, which they see as “artificial” human constructs. They read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights article 16(3), “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State,” in support of this interpretation.
This interpretation of the family contrasts with a broad range of human rights provisions developed over the last two decades that have progressively emphasized and recognized the rights of individual family members rather than of the family as a group. Women, children, individuals who identify as LGBTQ, and other marginalized or discriminated groups have been singled out as subjects of human rights protection, which is indicative of a general trend in international human rights law towards the recognition of the rights of individual members of a family, rather than of the family as a collective unit. Conservative actors reject this individualist turn in human rights law and insist on the family as a collectivity.
As a way of promoting this interpretation of human rights, we observe today the emergence of a small but highly interconnected transnational network of moral conservative homeschooling activists that is tied to a larger conservative network focused on the defense of the natural family. The main conservative organization promoting homeschooling transnationally is the Global Home Education Exchange (GHEX). Based in Canada and founded by the chair of the Canadian Home School League Defense Association, Gerald Huebner, GHEX organizes international homeschooling events, publishes international declarations, and diffuses academic research on homeschooling. Moreover, its members are also involved in transnational court cases and sponsor legislative initiatives aimed at legalizing homeschooling throughout the world.
By uniting moral conservatives around the same topics, promoting specific types of action, and defining the terms of the discourse, the moral conservative advocacy network centered on GHEX helps create coherence to the broader conservative movement and diffuses homeschooling as a political topic.
Further, by using international organizations and courts in order to push for the codification of a new human right—the human right of parents to homeschool their children—moral conservative homeschooling advocates engage in legal constitutionalism and advocate for universalism in order to pursue their political agenda.
They do so because, in advocating for homeschooling as a human right, moral conservatives assert parental rights (rather than individual entitlements) as the key value for decisions about family issues in the international legal framework. Therefore, homeschooling functions as a first step in reframing human rights and consolidating a particular understanding of the family within human rights jurisprudence and legislation.
Authors’ note: This post is adapted from J. Mourão Permoser and K. Stoeckl, “Advocating illiberal human rights: the global network of moral conservative homeschooling activists,” Global Networks (forthcoming).