By: Attorney Deborah Stevenson, Executive Director, National Home Education Legal Defense

Nothing makes me angrier than a lie, except when a lie is repeated so often that people believe it to be truth. I’m sick of lies, distorted truth, spin, and revisionist history. Can we just get back to reality? Can we just hold people accountable for their purposeful distortions?

Can we just set the record straight?

The lie that makes me the angriest is the lie that “It’s legal to homeschool “now.”” The implication in that statement is the lie. The implication is that it wasn’t legal to homeschool before, or that homeschooling only became legal in the past 20 years or so. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

What is “homeschooling”? It is the act of parents undertaking their responsibility to instruct their own children. This is the most basic, the most natural, the most instinctive undertaking of the human race. Since the beginning of the human race, whether you accept the scientific view of that man lived as early as seven million years ago ( or whether you accept the religious view that God created man four or five thousand years ago (, the inescapable fact is that parents have instructed their children from the moment of birth to adulthood since the inception of the human race whenever that was. It wasn’t illegal to do so in the beginning, and it’s not illegal to do so now.

What is “new” is the public school system. The first public school in America was established by Puritan settlers in Boston in 1635. It was established by the Reverend John Cotton who wanted to create a school modeled after the Free Grammar School in Boston, England, in which Latin and Greek were taught ( The truth is, though, that the opening of that first public school did not automatically mean that the instruction of children by their parents somehow automatically became illegal. Quite the opposite is true.

In the early days in New England, in fact, parents were expected to instruct their children. If parents didn’t instruct their children such that the children became “unruly,” the selectmen of the town could take the child from the parent and place the child, not with government officials, but with another surrogate parent of sorts called a master. It then became the master’s responsibility to instruct the child.

Over time, small public schools were opened, many of which were operated and overseen by ecclesiastical societies. Oversight slowly gave way to oversight by towns and, later, to what we now know as boards of education. At no time during the growth of the public school system, however, did state governments declare the instruction of children by their parents to be illegal.

The popularity of the public school system increased dramatically during the nineteenth century, thanks in large part to Horace Mann ( He persuaded the Massachusetts legislature, in fact, to set up a six month minimum school year and led a movement to set up teacher institutions throughout the state. Even while Mann was tending to this task, the Massachusetts legislature at no time declared the instruction of children by their parents to be illegal. It is also curious to note, however, that while persuading the legislature to increase the power of public school, Horace Mann succeeded in his own life without public school. In fact, the so-called “father of American education” was, in effect, largely “homeschooled.” Taught by his parents at first, Mann taught himself by reading at the local library. In fact, he educated himself so well without the benefit of “public school” that he was able to enter college as a sophomore in 1816.

As the public school system grew, legislatures adopted more laws about the system. The law that most people are familiar with that state legislatures adopted is the “compulsory attendance” law. This law has many permutations depending on the state in which it was adopted. Its basic thrust is to tell parents that their children “must attend” public school. Massachusetts was the first state to enact such a law in 1852 (

It required children between the ages of eight and fourteen to attend school for at least three months each year.

The compulsory attendance laws, for the most part, initially were adopted during the height of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. This was a time when the growth of industry opened new sources of income for families. It was a time when parents allowed their children to work in the factories, instead of on the family farms of yesteryear. For a multitude of reasons, those in power deemed it inherently injurious to the children to work in the factories, and, instead deemed it eminently more important for them to attend public school. By 1918 all states followed suit (

It is important to note that the compulsory attendance laws were aimed at those children who were not being educated by other means. In fact, there were many exemptions to these laws. Most importantly, these laws simply did not apply to those children who were being educated by other means. In other words, the legislatures did not declare education of children by their parents, or by private schools or tutors for that matter, to be illegal (

Today, most states still have “compulsory attendance laws.” BUT THAT DOES NOT NECESSARILY MEAN THAT IT WAS EVER ILLEGAL FOR PARENTS TO INSTRUCT THEIR OWN CHILDREN. THE TRUTH IS, IT WAS NEVER “ILLEGAL” FOR PARENTS TO INSTRUCT THEIR OWN CHILDREN. Can we please stop perpetuating the lie that it was illegal?

It is the development of this “new” public school system that, in part, has fueled the lie. The public school system has become so huge and so powerful that it dominates the public’s thinking. It is also the agenda of some to perpetuate the lie. The lie benefits different groups such as the established public school system or established organizations purporting to “assist” parents fearful of the public school system taking their rights away.

What is true is that many states did, and still do, impose government regulations on how and when parents instruct their children. It is unfortunate that the government imposes any regulations on parents who instruct their own children. It is my belief, however, that one of the reasons why the government has been successful in adopting regulations affecting the right of parents to instruct their children is because the lie that it was illegal for parents to homeschool in the first place has been perpetuated for so long.

From this lie flows a host of issues. For example, if you believe the lie that it was illegal for parents to instruct their children, it follows that parents would have to seek “permission” from the government in order to do so. If you believe the lie, it follows that parents would be fearful that they would not receive that “permission.” If you believe the lie, it follows that parents would be grateful when the government magnanimously grants that “permission.” If you believe the lie, it follows that parents are more apt to see “regulation” of parental instruction by the government as a matter of course. After all, if the government has the “authority” to grant “permission” to parents to instruct, certainly the government has the “authority” to impose “regulation” of parents’ ability to instruct, and it is reasonable for the government to do so.

Armed with the facts, armed with the truth, however, parents can begin to realize that, in reality, the government never did have the “authority” to declare the right of parents to instruct their children as illegal, and it’s a safe bet that the government in your state never did declare the right of parents to instruct their children as illegal.

Don’t take my word for it, however, look it up for yourself. Investigate what your state’s history really is regarding the right of parents to instruct their own children. Get copies of the laws. Trace them from the beginning of your state to the present. Then spread the word to every parent in your state. Don’t be fooled by lies. Don’t be duped by spin. Never be intimidated by anyone. There is no need to be afraid. You will know the truth, and you will be able to defend the truth whenever necessary for your sake, and for the sake of your children.


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