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Military Eligibility and Homeschooling

These articles appeared in the Spring 2000 Snail Mail of MHLA (no longer published).

Military Survey Re-ignites Fears of Legislation

Over the past 20 years, homeschooling activists have learned the hard way that introducing legislation to improve the situation for homeschooling families can easily backfire and unexpectedly lead to more, not less, regulation and control of our families. For more than ten years, MHLA and MassHOPE, the two statewide organizations in Massachusetts, have stood firmly together against the idea of trying to improve homeschooling in Massachusetts by introducing new law. Since most families in this state homeschool with the relatively friendly cooperation of their local school districts or at least without major problems, there are better ways to help the few families who do run into real trouble.

For similar reasons, many homeschoolers across the country, including the 10-year-old National Homeschool Association (NHA) and the newly formed National Home Education Network (NHEN), are concerned about a law designed to make it easier for homeschoolers to enlist in the military. Since military recruiters understandably want assurance that people who claim to be homeschooling graduates actually are, a survey was sent to selected homeschool organizations to get help in defining homeschool graduates. The Survey by the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) included a cover letter from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). Homeschoolers in favor of this action see the 5-year pilot program as a necessary change to allow homeschoolers who want to enlist in the military to be treated equally with those possessing high school diplomas.

Homeschoolers opposed to this survey and related legislation, are concerned that regulations adopted by the military, based on a narrow definition of who is or is not a "genuine" homeschooler, might set a precedent for other state and federal regulations detrimental to homeschoolers.

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When is New Legislation Worth the Risk?

I'd like to share with the Snail Mail readers my thoughts on the homeschool-military issue and what I see as the most significant issue it raises for the homeschool community: how many homeschoolers should be affected in order to make the introduction of legislation a worthwhile risk? While I agree with MHLA's long-standing policy about avoiding the dangers of legislation, I wonder whether the "no legislation" position will get harder and harder to hold as more and more people homeschool, as legislators pay more attention to education in general, and as the NEA continues to push for more regulation of homeschooling. In Massachusetts, I'm fairly confident that we can continue to forestall any proposed legislation. But in various federal and nationwide areas, I'm not so confident. The military issue is only one of many in which some delineation of homeschooling is involved. For example, an association of college admissions officers is now seeking some sort of standardization of homeschool credentials. What is our most effective strategy in dealing with these changing times?

In the issue of homeschoolers and the military, I find many complexities. I've been on the NHEN email loop about this topic since its inception a few months ago. http://www.onelist.com/community/NHEN-CNASurvey. I'm still in a fair amount of confusion about some factual matters and have not really begun to resolve the political questions raised. The more I researched, the more complexities I found. I have learned more than I ever expected to know about issues of military recruitment, enlistment, and attrition. It's an ironic combination: unregulated (thankfully so) home education with regulated (necessarily so) military procedures.

The most relevant information for me was finding out what the situation was before the pilot study. Without a high school diploma from an accredited high school, homeschoolers in the past were relegated to Tier II status. Far fewer Tier II recruits are taken than Tier I candidates, although given the current need for manpower in the military, Tier II recruits will not likely be excluded. Tier II recruits, however, are not eligible for various higher skilled training slots, educational incentives and enlistment bonuses. The Air Force, for example, takes only about one percent of its force from Tier II, and those slots go to candidates hand-picked by Congressmen. The Marines, similarly, is effectively closed to Tier II candidates. Thus the legislation was not sought simply to "make it easier for homeschoolers to enlist in the military." How many homeschoolers were interested in joining the military but chose not to enlist under Tier II status? Since the pilot program has been in place, there has been tremendous growth in the numbers of homeschool enlistees. Army numbers jumped from 31 to 154, Air Force from 10 to 200, and the Navy from 23 to 1050. [Washington Times, "Home-schoolers gain in military recruiting No longer in class with high school dropouts," 11/26/1999]. It seems to me it's possible that some of the increase could be due to counting homeschoolers who would not have been counted before. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that all this increase is in fact from homeschoolers who otherwise would not have joined the military. That's over 1300 homeschool kids per year.

Could these kids have been admitted to Tier I in some other way? HSLDA states that they have been trying for years to help client homeschoolers gain access to Tier I status, to no avail. They even brought a civil suit against the Navy, and the Navy agreed to admit homeschoolers for several years to study attrition rates. (Question: how many were admitted and what happened to that study?) Clearly, HSLDA concluded that the benefit to homeschoolers outweighed the risk of the legislation, a risk they must have determined to be minimal.

What are the side effects of the legislation that assigns homeschoolers to Tier I for the purposes of a pilot study? One side effect is the need created to validate homeschooling from the recruiter's point of view. When homeschoolers were designated as Tier II, there was no incentive for anyone without a diploma to claim to be a homeschooler. Now, with the pilot study, it becomes important to distinguish "bonafide" homeschoolers in order to determine accurately their attrition rates. The legislation itself says nothing about defining homeschoolers. It states that for purposes of the pilot study, a person shall be treated as Tier I if "the person is a home school diploma recipient and provides a transcript demonstrating completion of high school to the military department involved under the pilot program." According to Michael Farris of HSLDA, a "transcript or diploma prepared by the parent. . .satisfies the law's intent. No additional educational documentation is required." [http://www.dovelink.com/HomeSchool/HSArticle003.htm] A letter from Senator Paul Coverdell, sponsor of the amendment that created the legislation, to the Pentagon affirms this position. He states that "it has come to my attention that the service branches are failing to comply with the intent of the law by adding unintended and unauthorized language to the requirement established by Section 571 of Public Law 105-261" [letter dated December 15, 1998]. Section 571 is the section that authorizes the pilot study. The entire text of the law is available at the NHA site (http://www.n-h-a.org). The military, through W.S. Sellman, Director of Accession Policy, responds that "[t]he Department is not requiring certification of home school diplomas" [letter dated January 12, 1999]. Both Coverdell's and Sellman's letters refer to enclosures of interpretive policy and guidelines. I hope to find out exactly what was in those enclosures, especially what the recruiting offices were being told to do in terms of homeschoolers.

I understand, from online military recruiter boards, that each branch of the Service developed different guidelines. The Air Force, apparently, is satisfied with a notarized letter/transcript from the parents. The Army, as you will see if you look at the documents on the NHA website, has a more elaborate method that involves one of several outside agencies, such as verification by the local school district that the student was in fact homeschooling. Clearly, the issue of who constitutes a bonafide homeschooler is of interest to the military.

Until I began researching this issue, I was at a loss to understand why the military placed such a premium on the possession of a high school diploma. Those of us who are homeschooling are all too well aware that the piece of paper in no way guarantees that the graduate has any more knowledge or skills than someone without a diploma. But the military has found that possession of a high school diploma is the best predictor of lower attrition rates. And, since every recruit who drops out of training costs the government an estimated $18,000 for each "premature separation," lower attrition rates save the taxpayers money. Why the diploma is correlated with low attrition is not really known, but the speculation is that a candidate with a diploma has shown the "perseverance, maturity, successful participation in group learning situations, team spirit, tolerance of and adaptability to rules and regulations, determination, self-control, and other similar attributes" that may be "true predictors of persistence in the military." [The GED and the U.S. Armed Forces: article may be found at http://www.ed.gov/pubs/GED/gedusaf.html]. In fact, during the first year of the pilot study, the attrition rate of homeschoolers in the Air Force was 13 % compared to an overall 9%, though even the Air Force spokesman was quick to point out that "it might not be the right year to compare yet." [Washington Times article]. The pilot study provides for a monitoring of the attrition, discipline, and adaptability to military life of homeschool recruits.

In a related study, the Center for Naval Analyses sent out the now infamous survey, with a cover letter from HSLDA, to selected homeschool organizations. A big question I have is why the Center was not aware that many homeschool organizations are not affiliated with or represented by HSLDA. Thus, the survey will not be statistically accurate. Another big question I have is how HSLDA reconciles Mike Farris' statement of "no further documentation required" with the range of possible documentation listed on the survey. Presumably HSLDA is doing its best to have a successful pilot study, which means having good results from those designated as homeschoolers. The Tier I status of homeschoolers will undoubtedly only stay in place after the pilot study if homeschoolers are shown to have results equal to those of high school diploma recruits.

I would like to understand how the survey came about. What role did HSLDA play in the survey and how might the survey itself have been different if other homeschool groups had been involved? Then again, would any other national homeschool group have been involved, even if asked?

It's at this point that I run up against a genuine paradox. My thinking goes around and around in circles here. If there is no other national homeschool group that has an organized presence in Washington, then HSLDA is going to be the voice of homeschoolers in the Capitol. HSLDA is an organization that does not eschew central organization but rather has a well-organized political lobbying effort that can draw on a wide network of homeschoolers across the country. Is there an effective way to balance that strong voice without having an equally well-organized and centralized structure? It's much easier to organize in favor of something, such as gaining Tier I status for homeschoolers, than to organize in favor of a void, such as no legislation.

As with everything in homeschool politics, there is much to chew on.

Nicky Hardenbergh

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