It was once criminal ‘subterfuge’: Previous generations discuss early history of KC-area homeschooling

Some 40 years after they made history, several families in the Kansas City area are publicly sharing their memories of homeschooling before its legal status was recognized.

Three moms explained the challenges they faced in the 1980s in a video recorded as the virtual keynote address of the Midwest Parent Educators’ April 1-2 homeschool conference and curriculum fair.

“I don’t really want to go to court. But if I have to, I will,” said Sharon Bellas, recounting the time when the Kansas district attorney’s office threatened to file truancy charges against her family.

When asked what it was like to start her homeschool in the 1980s, Bellas said: “I knew very little about homeschooling except what I had heard on the radio. I didn’t know anyone who homeschooled.”

Homeschooling called ‘thinly veiled subterfuge’

Kansas families who homeschooled during this period were taking a huge risk, especially after 1983 when the Kansas Supreme Court appeared to make homeschooling illegal.

In the early 1980s, a school district charged the Sawyer family with truancy even though they had formally withdrawn their children to open a non-accredited private school in their home.

As the court case proceeded, the lawyer representing the Sawyers called on early childhood education specialist Dr. Raymond Moore to provide expert testimony supporting the family’s decision to homeschool. The Sawyers also showed evidence that they used a well-respected curriculum and kept weekly lesson schedules.

The court, however, decided to uphold the truancy charges and removed the children from their parents to place them in state custody. The Sawyer family appealed all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court, which eventually ruled against the family and in favor of the lower court’s decision.

“We find the Sawyers’ plan, though well intentioned, a thinly veiled subterfuge attacking compulsory school attendance,” the state Supreme Court wrote in its ruling. “If such a family arrangement will serve as a substitute for school, there is no compulsory school attendance.”

That ruling sent shock waves through a local group of homeschool families in Kansas City.

“The impact of that on our very small, beginning community of homeschoolers was pretty serious,” said Suzanne Alongi. “We all felt threatened. We all felt a need to be very quiet, to stay under the radar. We didn’t have the freedom to go out during the day.”

These pioneer homeschoolers stayed the course, clinging to the only opening the Kansas Supreme Court appeared to leave – the definition of a school as having three major components: planning students’ work, scheduling lessons and taking periodic testing.

As a result, homeschoolers made sure to document how they planned their children’s work, scheduled lessons and took periodic tests. 

‘Called by God’: Legal support arrives 

In 1983, the same year the Sawyers lost their court appeal, a new association formed that would play a crucial role in homeschool history – the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).

“The law was very difficult in most states,” recalled Mike Smith, HSLDA co-founder and president. “Very few states actually recognized homeschooling as a right, as a statutory right. … State by state, we had to try to battle in the courts first, then go to the legislatures, get the law changed so that homeschooling became legal in every state. And it is today. And so HSLDA was privileged, I believe actually called by God, in 1983 to do what we did.”

Sharon Bellas said her HSLDA membership provided key legal protection during her homeschool journey, which started in 1987.

“My children were in public school at the time, and something happened in the school that made me realize I didn’t want them there,” she said. “So my husband and I decided that the next year, we were going to homeschool.”

The Bellas family faced many challenges, from trying to find curriculum to making connections with other homeschoolers.

“I went around to every neighbor in our cul-de-sac and told them what we were going to do, because I figured they’d never heard of homeschooling either,” Bellas said. “And I wanted them to know we weren’t just keeping our kids home for fun, that we had a plan and we were going to do it for a year, and then we’d figure out what we wanted to do after that.”

When the Bellas family heard about the fledgling HSLDA organization, they signed up for membership and received their acceptance letter – just before they received a threatening letter from the district attorney’s office.

“I went out to the mailbox, and there was this great big envelope,” Bellas recalled. “It … was saying they had records that our children were not in school, and it was their responsibility to make sure that our kids were educated. And in order to do that, they sent me eight pages of questions. And I had to fill them all out, and send it back within 30 days – or they were going to file truancy charges against us.”

After receiving the letter, Bellas called HSLDA.

“They right away put me in touch with the lawyer for Kansas, and he just took over,” Bellas said. After some correspondence was exchanged, the district attorney’s office escalated the case, saying it would prosecute within 10 days unless Bellas filled out the papers.

“He [the lawyer] called me back and he said, ‘What do you want me to do?'” Bellas recalled. “And I said, ‘I don’t really want to go to court. But if I have to, I will.’ … So he said, ‘I’m going to send them one more letter.’ And he did, and it was a stronger letter. And we never heard from them again.”

Encouragement: ‘Community is a very important factor’

Suzanne Alongi said that, in those early days of homeschooling, the sense of community from other moms gave her courage to keep going.

“Community is a very important factor in the world of homeschooling,” she said. “The community, small as it was, was a great blessing.”

Alongi said several moms in her group made the decision very early on to meet for breakfast once a month.

“That made a huge difference in many families’ homeschooling journey,” she said. “I could name three or four people I know that would not have continued if not for that ongoing peer-to-peer, mom-to-mom encouragement.”

Sherry Rink, another pioneer homeschool mom, said she also faced many challenges homeschooling her two children in the 1980s.

“There were points in time when I wondered, ‘OK, God, are we doing enough? Is this a good thing?’ ” she recalled. “It was a heavy load to know that we were carrying the responsibility of their education.”

Today, she encourages parents who are interested in homeschooling to research all the options.

“There’s a lot of help out there now,” she said. “There are other people, probably that you know, that are homeschooling or they know somebody that’s homeschooling.”

Rink said many parents underestimate their ability to homeschool, especially since they are often their children’s first teachers.

“Just know that you can do it,” she said. “You teach your children to talk, you teach your children to walk, you teach your children to eat, so you’re already doing some form of homeschooling before the academics come into it. … You just need to be focused and be willing, and God will be your help.”