SKIPPING SCHOOL: Homeschooling in Los Angeles, 1950-2010

Record: Dixie Dillon Lane, Skipping School: Homeschooling in Los Angeles County, 1950-2010 (Ph.D. Diss, University of Notre Dame, 2015).

Summary:  Lane, who teaches history classes at Christendom College while homeschooling her three children, here presents a remarkable history of homeschooling in Los Angeles County that begins in the 1950s and ends around 2010.

It should be noted at the outset that very little fine-grained historical work has been done on homeschooling.  My own broad synthesis tells the story on a national level, but to do so it had to rely on a number of less-than-ideal sources, mostly activist accounts and homeschooling periodicals.  I was able to go deeper in a few locations (South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas for example) because other scholars had done the hard work of interviewing key figures, reading newspaper articles and court briefs, and examining archival documents.  Lane does this for a key location for homeschooling’s early history to tell a story that has not yet been told.

Lane’s basic thesis is that homeschooling emerged when it did because of school consolidation and bureaucratization.  As parents lost their voice in local school matters, many of them grew increasingly alienated from the public school project as a whole.  Homeschooling was a logical consequence.  This anti-institutionalism of the postwar period gradually turned into a post-institutional approach “that moves with comfort across educational, social, and political boundaries.” (p. 19) Her chosen setting of Los Angeles county is a good one, as a core group of families here made the shift to homeschooling earlier than families in most other parts of the country.  To tell the story, Lane relies on both traditional documentary evidence and on seventeen interviews she conducted with key early adopters.

Lane’s interviews led her to a four-stage account.  First, for the period 1950-1975, she posits a radical departure for homeschoolers, most of whom believed that a stark choice must be made between institutions that threaten children and families and homeschooling that helps them flourish.  Homeschoolers in this period often broke the law to do what they did, and court cases often resulted.  Lane devotes special attention to People v. Turner (1953) and In re Shinn (1961), two cases that ended badly for homeschoolers.  She also covers the now familiar story of the rise of John Holt and Raymond Moore as advocates and leaders of a national movement.

The period 1975-1989 was marked by increasing organization as parents came together to seek public legitimacy for their practice.  Homeschoolers, Lane says, “remained anti-institutional but became pro-organization.”  Lane profiles three families and their growing organizational ties, as they sought to do something that was technically illegal in California:  Martin and Carolyn Forte, pioneers who founded one of the first resource centers and support groups in the region;  Mary-Mark Haggard, a conservative Catholic who used an early correspondence school called Oak Meadow (whose history Lane tells in detail); and Renée and Rodney Brooks, African-American residents of South Central LA seeking to escape the deplorable schools in that area.  This material is the highlight of Lane’s dissertation, as it provides rich information about homeschoolers in the 1970s and early 1980s, the networks they created, and the tenuous legal climate they endured.

During the period 1990-1999, homeschoolers increasingly drew on the resources of other institutions while seeking at the same time to maintain their autonomy.  As more and more children were homeschooled, families used churches, libraries, private organizations, and even public school districts to piece together an education that worked for them.  Parents became not anti-institutional but post-institutional, and new recruits had only “to join a movement, not to start one.” (p. 115)  This section again draws on several interviews, offering vivid portraits of several homeschooling families.

Finally, the period of 2000-2010 showcases a homeschooling that is increasingly a mainstream aspect of the broader nexus of educational options available to parents in the post-institutional educational ecology.  Homeschooling increasingly looks like the cutting edge of a growing post-institutional approach to education at large as the conventional boundaries between schools and other places or ideas break down.  This chapter includes a very good discussion of the famous In re Rachel L. (2008) decision, which for a moment made homeschooling illegal again in California, and the resultant Jonathan L. et al (2008), which overturned it and gave legal imprimatur to the longstanding practice of homeschooling being considered private schooling in California.


As is clear from my summary, I liked this dissertation very much.  Lane has provided historians of homeschooling with much valuable new material, all presented within an organizational structure that I think gets it right.  Nothing she says here really challenges current thinking on the history of homeschooling, but the California story can now be told in much greater detail.

I do have two minor complaints.  First, while Lane generally does a good job using broader secondary literature to add context to the story she’s telling, occasionally that use veers very close to uncritical advocacy.  Frequently she makes claims about the benefits of homeschooling drawn from partisan academic sources that more credible research has shown to be suspect.  Her knowledge and employment of the secondary literature on late 20th century U.S. social history is excellent.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the literature on homeschooling outcomes.

Finally, and this is a complaint that applies to most if not all historiography, Lane’s account, as rich as it is, depends entirely on a set of anecdotes.  She is aware of this problem and acknowledges it in the dissertation, noting that the sort of family willing to be interviewed for a project like this might not be representative of the broader population.  Lane’s emphasis on some of the key figures of Los Angeles County’s homeschooling history and organizational matrix brings the narrative to life, but it’s still the story of the charismatic leader class, not the thousands of nameless families who joined their cause.  This bias is the same one that has haunted the studies Brian Ray has conducted for several decades now that Lane cites uncritically.  Do motivated volunteers, whether captured on surveys or interviews, represent the broader homeschooling community?  How might historians capture the experiences of some of the less charismatic and perhaps less successful families in the movement?

Milton Gaither, Messiah College

This entry was posted in History and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.