Watching a recent television series, my husband and I were impressed with lessons the main character — an American football coach taking the reins of an English soccer team — taught his athletes. My favorite scene involves the coach playing a game of darts. After throwing a bullseye, the coach explains that his opponent underestimated him, a fault easily overcome with a few questions. “Be curious, not judgmental,” the coach says, in a quote attributed to Walt Whitman.
While this philosophy could serve humanity well in various arenas, it holds particular promise for the LCMS in this extraordinary moment for education. Homeschooling, remote schooling and other forms of instruction outside of school buildings rose exponentially due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent article from The Lutheran Witness online points out the ministry opportunity in this tide change, encouraging Lutheran schools to mentor homeschooling parents and offer curriculum and extracurricular support. As a homeschooler, I welcome the topic as it emerges in a churchwide conversation, and I hope to offer additional perspective.
Though Lutheran homeschoolers daily need support and encouragement — and many homeschoolers would welcome such support from Lutheran schools — perhaps the church misses the key opportunity of the moment: learning from homeschoolers. Obviously, homeschoolers are experienced in remote education, but how many of the 1.5 billion children globally who learned from home during the pandemic benefitted from the collective wisdom of homeschoolers?
Many schools, public and private, presented parents with remote learning, which both parents and teachers were ill-equipped and ill-prepared to implement. The world scrambled to adapt in those early COVID days, but curiosity could have spared some of the struggle. Curiosity might still help a struggling American school system if more people chose to ask homeschoolers questions.
Taking that soccer coach’s advice, here are some questions Lutheran schools and congregations might ask homeschoolers.
Question 1: Why do you want to be in charge of your child’s education?
Though many faithful Christian teachers serve in public schools, there is plentiful evidence that state and national policymakers are moving toward an educational philosophy that directly opposes orthodox Christianity. Yet, more than 85% percent of American families, many Lutherans among them, place responsibility for their children’s education in the hands of a secular government. And we see the fruit of this trajectory: Less than half of Millennials describe themselves as Christians and even fewer attend church regularly. Gen Z appears to continue the trend of Christianity’s freefall in the West. Decades of outsourcing the education of children to schools pushing a progressive agenda has sadly contributed to leading many children away from the faith.
Yet, the 3% (and growing) of families who homeschool set off alarm bells among those who cling to the state’s authority in educating children. A recent law review article published by a Harvard professor called homeschooling an “unregulated regime” and urged for a presumptive ban on the practice.
Lutherans should recognize the lies of the enemy in such rhetoric and defend parents’ freedom to educate their children in the manner they think best. Parents’ rightful authority to direct the education of their children stems from natural law, biblical instruction and state and federal law. Luther recognizes the natural order of educational authority, saying, “For all authority flows and is propagated from the authority of parents. For where a father is unable alone to educate his child, he employs a schoolmaster to instruct him.”
Like many homeschooling parents, my husband and I hope our efforts will steer our children away from educational dangers while providing a challenging curriculum and the joy of learning together as a family.
Question 2: What is the point of education?
The purpose of education varies depending on the educator’s worldview. From utilitarian training for a particular job to the classical pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful, education can serve many purposes.
Lutherans seeking to know God and make Him known in our vocations think education must be more than the pursuit of high test scores, college scholarships and a cushioned bank account. We want our children to learn that their purpose is far greater and more eternally impactful than that described by a secular curriculum.
The U.S. Constitution has consistently protected the freedom of parents to direct the purpose of a child’s education. In Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the Supreme Court said, “The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”
Recognizing this high duty, homeschoolers seek to equip their children with the tools needed to venture forth into a hostile world. From imagination to critical thinking, an understanding of the Word and ability to defend it against darkness, a grasp of days before and a hope for days to come, the homeschooler’s objective is not constrained by the mandates of a standardized test. Free from the artificial time constraints of a classroom, homeschooled children have the opportunity to explore interests — from cooking to music to nature study — and develop talents that might go unrealized in a school environment.
Question 3: How do you educate on a budget?
Like many homeschool families, we struggle financially. But we are not different in that regard from public school administrators — education at all levels seems loath to stay on budget. As public school spending climbs, school leaders request more money. In fact, one education researcher found that “the United States currently spends over $15,000 per student each year, and inflation-adjusted K-12 education spending per student has increased by 280 percent since 1960.”
While Lutheran schools certainly make do with less funding per student, school leaders are naturally tempted to desire more — better facilities, newer technology. Homeschoolers are not immune to this desire for more and better, but limited budgets often demand homeschooling families embrace shared curriculum and a back to the basics approach. A library card and a long list of free internet resources, combined with carefully selected curriculum, usually provides a budget-friendly depth of education unimaginable to government curriculum architects.
While challenging, homeschooling is also possible in single or two-parent working families. The increased flexibility for remote work ushered in by COVID makes this option more feasible. As a working mother, I do not understate the imperfect juggling involved in such a venture, but imparting an education rooted in truth to our children has been worth the chaos. As Luther urges, “We must spare no diligence, time, or cost in teaching and educating our children, that they may serve God and the world.”
Low- and moderate-income families also appreciate Lutheran schools that extend a helping hand. An analysis of private schools by type indicates that Lutheran school families have the lowest median income of all private school types, indicating generous support to families such as ours, who are otherwise unable to afford such education.
Question 4: What do you need from the church?
While homeschoolers are in an ideal position to support Lutheran educators and parents adapting to remote learning, we have neither the pride nor foolishness to admit we have all the answers. And if homeschoolers seem exhausted when asked, “But what about socialization?” or defensive when a teacher offers to mentor, it’s because we are. Exhausted and defensive from years of critique, that is. Even so, we could still use the support of our churches and Lutheran schools.
Socialization opportunity isn’t a problem generally. From progressive co-ops (small groups of parents and children who meet for informal classes) that invited us to their pagan sun worship ceremonies to evangelical co-ops that confronted my children on the evils of Harry Potter, socialization opportunities for homeschoolers are abundant. However, likeminded, Christ-centered homeschool socialization with other Lutherans is often lacking.
In my family’s decade of homeschooling and multiple moves among several LCMS congregations, we’ve experienced the spectrum of homeschool embrace, from cold shoulders to open arms. We’ve been told that an LCMS church with a vacant school had no room for our homeschool group to meet or that homeschoolers might create discipline problems within a Lutheran school setting. These unjust rebukes sting.
But we have experienced balm on those wounds from pastors and school leaders who have welcomed us to chapel services, part-time classes and field trips. We have experienced the joy of churches that share space for homeschool families to learn and worship together. Lutheran schools that embrace homeschool families not only offer academic and extracurricular opportunity, they also offer part-time students the unique opportunity to be built in faith and truth by and with Lutheran friends.
We still homeschool our girls, but our son desired to learn with others for his high school years. Though I was initially disappointed about discontinuing his homeschooling, that rejection turned to thanksgiving as his home education melded fairly seamlessly into the challenging curriculum and character-building friendships of a classical Lutheran high school. There, we savor a school that holds parents as partners in educating children and nurturing them in the faith and backs their commitment with generous scholarships for children who could not otherwise attend.
This give-and-take between church, school and homeschooling families is not easy. It requires compromise, understanding and patience. But taking time to ask homeschoolers questions — to be curious, not judgmental — benefits more than just the adults in the conversation. Striving toward mutual understanding and support ultimately helps the children we love and strengthens congregations. Curiosity might just hit the bullseye for advancing Lutheran education.
Editor’s Note: The Lutheran Witness welcomes letters for both print and online publication. The online letters are more general in nature whereas print letters provide feedback on our print publication. If you would like to submit a letter, you may do so on our contact page. While these letters will receive a light edit prior to publication, they are not submitted to doctrinal review. Print letters are limited to 150 words.