Pro-Family lobbyists on Capitol Hill had a strong wind in their sails last March: the phrase “H.R. 6” had become a verb, meaning “to unleash a tsunami of angry phone calls, letters, and faxes from concerned citizens.” H.R. 6 was a bill to reauthorize (at increased funding levels) the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, a program through which federal dollars—and with them, federal control—are applied to public schools.
The isolated pro-family success that gave rise to phrases like “Do you want us to H.R. 6 you again?” came in response to an initiative by Representative George Miller (D-California). Mr. Miller proposed an amendment, added to H.R. 6 in committee, that would have required school districts receiving ESEA funds (and or almost all do) to certify to the U.S. Department of Education that each and every teacher “under their jurisdiction” was “certified to teach in the subject area to which he or she is assigned.”
Just more Beltway boilerplate, it seemed—until the ever-alert Mike Farris, legal champion of homeschoolers (and recently a heroic candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia), noticed that the operation of the Miller Amendment was not by any means restricted to public school teachers. In many states homeschooling families are required to file curricular notices and testing results with the local school district and are thus “under” its “jurisdiction.” Private schools were potentially threatened, too.
Note that the Miller Amendment would not have been satisfied with general certification (which more obnoxious states still require of homeschooling parents): it would have required specific certification in each and every subject taught by any given teacher. This would have been extremely burdensome: most homeschoolers are as adept at teaching as their campus-school counterparts, but there is no guarantee that many of them would be able to jump through certification hoops designed by people who are hostile to homeschooling to begin with. Despite the taped denial that Mr. Miller was later to put on his office telephone in response to thousands of calls, the Miller Amendment was a dagger at the heart of homeschooling and at the principle of local and family autonomy in education.
On the charitable assumption that this problem was a mere drafting oversight. Representative Dick Armey (R-Texas) offered a secondary amendment in committee to specify that private and homeschools were not covered by the certification requirements. It failed—on a party-line vote.
So the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Mr. Farris’s Home School Legal Defense Association, and other groups shifted into overdrive. In my own years with the Family Research Council, I have personally observed the enormous lobbying energy of the homeschooling community. Friends on the Hill told FRC that the avalanche of calls, letters, and faxes opposing the Miller Amendment surpassed those regarding the NAFTA battle.
When the dust cleared, the Armey Amendment had been added to H.R. 6 by the full House by a vote of 374 to 53. This illustrates good news and bad news about federal lawmaking today. The good news is that highly motivated “communities of virtue” (to borrow a concept from Alasdair MacIntyre and Allan Carlson) can affect legislative outcomes. The bad news is that even when battles such as the one over the Miller and Armey Amendments are won, the war goes on, with the federal government continuing to win out over individuals and families, with the values of the bicoastal elite continuing to displace the values of local communities.
The fact is, without taking anything away from the Armey Amendment, H.R. 6 is still a monster of a bill. It will give $12.4 billion to the present arrogant and failing education establishment; it will give unelected potentates the power to fire elected school boards for failing to meet as-yet unspecified “standards”— standards which, in practice, could very well turn out to be the woolly and politicized ones of the so-called “outcome-based education” (OBE) movement; and it will expand school-based contraceptive clinics, under the latest euphemism, “coordinated community services” (e.g., referring young women to the community abortionist).
The battle to squelch the Miller Amendment by means of the Armey Amendment absolutely had to be fought and won, and it was. But it’s a measure of our times that a bill that does all that H.R. 6 will do to public schools is regarded by many in Washington as a victory for the pro-family interest because it refrains at the last minute from doing it to private and homeschools as well.