It sounds innocuous enough. Even sterile. “The Global Home Education Exchange” (GHEX). Yet GHEX may be the most consequential right-wing organization in the world. And it has successfully flown under the radar for a decade: it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.
Founded in 2012, GHEX markets itself as purely academic and professional. The organization states on its website that it is “an international non-governmental organization with a mission is to advance, connect, and equip the global home education community.” Yet peel back the curtain and you will find some of the most important Christian Nationalist activists in the United States driving change internationally. These figures, not content to remake the United States into a Christian nation, are exporting the United States’ cultural wars globally, with the goal to transform the entire world into their version of God’s kingdom. Key to this strategy—besides partnering with Russian conservatives—is the establishment of homeschooling as an international, inviolable human right belonging to parents.
Why homeschooling? To understand the answer to this question, we must first consider the origins of GHEX. Rather than being a coalition of academics and professionals interested in homeschooling, the organization is made up of far-right activists all related in one way or another to the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), the leading organization of the homeschool lobby here in America. But HSLDA isn’t just an insurance program for homeschoolers. It’s dedicated to advancing a white evangelical, Christian Nationalist worldview. Founded in 1983 by Michael Farris, an activist-lawyer who cut his teeth successfully opposing the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in Washington State, HSLDA has led the successful push to deregulate homeschooling across the United States. Today, because of HSLDA’s efforts, it is legal in 48 states for convicted child abusers to homeschool their children.
But HSLDA is not content with their victories domestically. For years now, they have turned their attention to international law. With fears that it could undermine parental rights in the United States, HSLDA decided to go on the offensive: to transform their leaders—especially Farris and HSLDA Director of Global Relations Mike Donnelly—into international law experts making fundamental changes across the globe to the foundations of international law itself. Just as they undermined child protection and children’s rights in the United States, they are successfully doing so around the world now as well.
Key to their success has been the founding of GHEX.
While GHEX—like HSLDA—presents itself as an organization strictly dedicated to homeschooling, it is in fact a clearinghouse for far-right extremists all around the world. In the journal Global Networks, researchers Julia Mourão Permoser and Kristina Stoeckl describe the organization as an “advocacy coalition” that is “composed of highly conservative actors generally associated with an anti-rights agenda (anti-gay rights, anti-women’s rights, anti-children’s rights).” It was founded in 2012 by Gerald Huebner, a conservative evangelical Christian activist from Manitoba, Canada who is the board chair of HSLDA’s Canada branch.
Including Huebner, there are 20 board members of GHEX, each of whom is an advocate deeply committed to the cause of social and political conservatism in their country of origin. The 19 other board members, and their countries of origin, are: Debra Bell (United States), Mike Donnelly (United States), Alberto Solano (Mexico), Edric Mendoza (Philippines), Barbara West (United States), Liz Gitonga (Kenya), Irina Shamolina (Russia, spouse of Komov), Silvia Cópio (Portugal), Karin van Oostrum (South Africa), Alexey Komov (Russia, spouse of Shamolina), Tim Chen (Taiwan), Godfrey Kyazze (Uganda), Vincius Reis (Brazil), Guillaume de Thieulloy (France), Emese Tolgyes-Busz (Hungary), Marek Budajezak (Poland), Tim Vince (UK), Erika Di Martino (Italy), and Peter Stock (Canada). All together, these 20 board members represent 16 countries.
Shamolina and Komov, the representatives from Russia, are worth highlighting for a number of reasons—not the least of which is that they are referred to as “the pioneers of homeschooling in Russia.” In addition to serving on the GHEX board, Shamolina is an Advisor on the Development of Home Education of the Chairman of the Patriarchal Commission for the Family, Maternity and Childhood Protection of the Russian Orthodox Church. She is also responsible for bringing popular American homeschooling programs to Russia, including Leigh Bortins’s Classical Conversations and Andrew Pudewa’s Institute for Excellence in Writing—and is the director of both programs’ Russian versions.
Komov has similar interests, serving both on the GHEX board as well as the board of the Russian World Congress of Families—the equivalent of the Russian Moral Majority, a virulently anti-LGBTQIA organization. A supporter of sodomy laws, Komov represents the World Congress of Families at the United Nations. Also like Shamolina, Komov works for the Patriarchal Commission for the Family, Maternity and Childhood Protection of the Russian Orthodox Church as their International Department Director. Shamolina and Komov’s close relationship with American evangelicals is a perfect example of how American evangelicals have learned to expand their anti-rights agenda beyond both the United States as well evangelicalism itself.
What GHEX Does
GHEX concerns itself with three things: (1) advocacy, (2) outreach, and (3) research. Regarding advocacy, GHEX has published two human rights declarations—the Berlin Declaration (2012) and the Rio Principles (2016)—arguing that homeschooling is a human right. These declarations use the language from respected international human rights documents (which GHEX members actually object to), like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to promote GHEX’s conservative goals. To further advance these goals, GHEX members have brought multiple cases before international courts in attempts to (1) overturn specific countries’ homeschooling bans and (2) create international legal precedent for the idea that homeschooling is a human right of parents.
While GHEX members have yet to be successful in these cases, it is not for lack of trying. Michael Farris, Mike Donnelly, and Roger Kiska—all individuals connected to American evangelicalism through either HSLDA or the Alliance Defending Freedom (a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group which HSLDA’s Farris took over only 4 years ago)—have brought numerous cases before both the U.S. Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In every case they argued that homeschooling should be a human right of parents.
GHEX also busies itself with outreach—and their networking efforts are clearly successful. The organization has united social and political conservatives all around the globe under the common objective of making homeschooling a human right. It has accomplished this especially through conferences. GHEX has hosted international homeschooling conferences every few years starting in 2012. These conferences have been held in multiple countries, including Germany (2012), Brazil (2016), and Russia (2018). (The Russian conference was, according to organizers, the “biggest ever” homeschooling event in the world, bringing together “more than 1,000 Russian and 100 international homeschooling parents, along with policymakers, organization leaders, academic experts, and researchers from over 30 countries.”) The most recent conference, intended to be held in the Philippines in 2020, was instead held virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Both Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, U.S. Republican Senators, were speakers.
Through these conferences, GHEX networks with local conservatives around the world to encourage and aid them to develop homeschooling organizations in their countries of origin. “In doing so,” write Permoser and Stoeckl, “GHEX is contributing to the creation of homeschooling groups in countries where home education is still relatively unknown.” These efforts have paid off, as homeschooling has rapidly become an important issue for conservatives around the globe. In Brazil, for example, the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro—a Trump ally—has declared the legalization of homeschooling to be one of his administration’s top priorities. And when GHEX came to Brazil for its 2016 homeschooling conference, Bolsonaro’s own son and member of the Brazilian parliament Eduardo Bolsonaro was in attendance.
The third and final task of GHEX is research. GHEX issues calls for papers on the topic of homeschooling, and then rewards researchers who submit papers with prizes and travel grants to GHEX conferences. The organization also has a mutual relationship with the Journal of School Choice, a peer-reviewed journal that promotes libertarian approaches to education. According to Permoser and Stoeckl, the journal allows GHEX to publish papers presented at their conferences, giving those papers the veneer of being scholarly and peer-reviewed. And while the Journal of School Choice claims to be scholarly and peer-reviewed, it features a significant revolving door. For example, Robert Maranto, the editor-in-chief of the journal, is a homeschool apologist who regularly presents at GHEX conferences. And Brian Ray, a central figure in the GHEX research program, both serves on the editorial board of the journal as well as publishes his own (biased and flawed) research in the journal.
Ray is not only a central figure in the GHEX research program, he is also the most well known researcher on homeschooling in the world. But Ray’s experience with homeschooling is not just research-based. An advocate of the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull ideologies popular in evangelical homeschooling, Ray is a far-right extremist who homeschooled all eight of his children on a secluded farm in a conservative enclave in western Oregon. During this time, Ray also founded the National Home Education Research Institute in 1990 as a partner to HSLDA. NHERI’s goal is activism, not research: NHERI uses its research to help HSLDA in their highly successful efforts to deregulate homeschooling in the United States. This is why critics of Ray and NHERI call him and his organization a “research arm” of HSLDA—an association Ray tries hard to counter. But the fact remains that, as Permoser and Stoeckl write, “most of the research sponsored by GHEX and NHERI blurs the line between academia and advocacy.”
In short, GHEX is not merely a support organization for homeschoolers around the world. It is a network of far-right extremists who have rallied around homeschooling as the perfect vehicle for advancing their social and political conservatism. By using respected international human rights treaties as templates and establishing a revolving door with an ostensibly peer-reviewed education journal, GHEX not only protects the American evangelical version of homeschooling; it also proliferates that version around the world. Consequently, GHEX has begun chipping away at the rights children have and complicating international efforts to protect those rights.
Homeschooling as White Flight
Through all this advocacy, outreach, and research, GHEX hopes to accomplish two goals: (1) the proliferation of homeschooling throughout the world and (2) the establishment of homeschooling as a fundamental human right belonging to parents. The proliferation of homeschooling is understandable, as it has become a massive, lucrative market. But why the interest in establishing homeschooling as a human right? To answer this, we must understand how homeschooling serves as a Trojan Horse for evangelical activism and cultural warfare. This requires understanding how homeschooling became central to social and political conservatism. Two significant factors were (1) white flight and (2) the desire for a parallel society.
When desegregation in public schools became the norm in the United States, massive white flight occurred. “Many evangelicals,” Anthea Butler writes in White Evangelical Racism, “took their children out of public school rather than have them attend with African Americans” (p. 45). White flight thus became central to the rise of not only evangelical homeschooling, but also Christian private education. In Homeschool: An American History, Milton Gaither situates the evangelical homeschooling movement in the rapid expansion of suburbs during the second half of the 20th century. Suburbs grew rapidly as white people fled cities, creating still-existing racial divides between white suburban populations and urban populations of color.
Further complicating matters, says Gaither, was the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregated public schools were unconstitutional. Through fleeing into the suburbs with no Black people, white people “provided millions of white Americans with a way to sidestep desegregation” (p. 88). Private education also became a way to sidestep desegregation. Brown v. Board of Education—and numerous court cases afterwards, like those outlawing organized school prayer in public school—inspired a massive increase in the number of Christian private schools, many of which were explicitly whites-only. Much like the evangelical homeschooling movement, the Christian private education movement was virulently anti-oversight. Gaither notes that, “Many Christian schools founded during the 1970s and 1980s were intentionally unaffiliated with any group and proudly unaccredited” (p. 109).
But as the Christian private education movement picked up steam, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) “began to threaten the tax-exempt status of religious groups running race-segregated schools” (Katherine Stewart, The Power Worshippers, p. 62). Beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the 1980s, the IRS started taking Christian private schools to court over their discriminatory admission policies. The most famous of these cases was decided in 1983: Bob Jones University v. United States. It was the Bob Jones decision that truly galvanized American conservatives and was the origin of the Religious Right that we see today. As the architect of the Religious Right and the founder of the Heritage Foundation, Paul Weyrich, said, “What galvanized the Christian community was not abortion, school prayer, or the ERA. [It] was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation” (Gaither, p. 111).
As the IRS cracked down on whites-only Christian private schools, white Christians called it “persecution” and withdrew their children. They turned to their last resort: homeschooling. Linda Dobson, a prominent leader in the secular homeschooling movement, describes the history this way in Homeschoolers’ Success Stories:
“In the 1980s, changes in the tax regulations for Christian schools forced the smaller among them to close down by the hundreds. Suddenly, the parents of the students attending these schools were faced with a choice between government school attendance and homeschooling. For many, this really wasn’t a choice at all, and these Christian families became part of a large second wave of homeschooling, joining earlier homeschoolers and boosting the numbers to record highs. Christian curriculum providers, already well-established businesses that had just lost a large chunk of their original market, followed the money and easily courted the new market of homeschooling parents” (p. 6).
Many homeschool curricula are made by the exact same racist, segregationist educators that educated children in the whites-only Christian private schools. Bob Jones, for example, the university sued by the IRS for discriminating against students of color, creates some of the (still) most popular curricula for evangelical homeschoolers. This is the case for Abeka and ACE as well. These three companies, all titans of the Christian curricula industry, started as suppliers to whites-only Christian private schools.
The influence of white flight on homeschooling is still noticeable. While the number of homeschoolers of color are certainly increasing, the movement still remains glaringly white. And the relationship between homeschooling and race goes deep. For example, studies have found that, the more segregated a community is, the less popular homeschooling is in that area. Studies have also found that, as public schools become increasingly integrated, states are more likely to adopt legislation in support of homeschooling.
But racism was not the only motivation for evangelical homeschoolers seeking to defend their white Christian worldview and way of life. The desire to create a parallel society to secular culture was also highly motivating—and homeschooling is the perfect tool for creating such a society.
Homeschooling as Parallel Society
Beginning with Abraham Kuyper and continuing through R.J. Rushdoony and into Michael Farris, evangelicalism has long promoted the importance of creating a parallel society to mainstream, secular culture. This separatism (which later leads to dominionism) is one of the core tenets of Christian Reconstructionism, a type of Christian Nationalism—or Christofascism—pioneered by Rushdoony. Christian Reconstructionism calls Christians to separate from mainstream society and create their own protected worlds—much like Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” or Jack Crabtree’s “under-the-radar communities.” And key to those protected worlds is the use of homeschooling to raise up the next generation in the evangelical worldview.
It is this separatism that truly makes the modern evangelical homeschooling movement distinct from home education throughout history. Whereas home education was historically done out of necessity, today it has become—as Gaither writes—“a deliberate rejection of and alternative to institutional schooling” (p. 6). But even more than a rejection of institutional schooling, homeschooling has become a practice promoted by anti-government proponents, often extremists on both the far-right and the far-left. It has become “an act, even a movement, of self-conscious political protest against government” (p. 2).
For evangelicals, the goal of all this rejection and protest is creating an insular world in which children will grow up living and breathing the evangelical worldview and practices. It is, in the words of Gaither, to “build alternative institutions and create alternative families—a separate, authentic, parallel universe” (p. 95). Instead of being influenced by mainstream culture, evangelical children will have religious alternatives to elements of that culture: evangelical bookstores, evangelical fiction, evangelical magazines gendered for boys and girls, evangelical music and music festivals, evangelical summer camps, evangelical TV shows and movies, and so forth. “Dramatic growth in the conservative, separatist sector spawned a host of alternative cultural institutions that mimicked even as they condemned the cultural mainstream,” Gaither says. “A parallel Christian culture was emerging” (p. 102).
Homeschooling naturally fits into evangelicals’ separatist goals. While many evangelicals had spent the last several decades fighting integration and pluralism in public schools to significant defeat, homeschooling gave them not just new hope, but actual, tangible control over children. Gaither explains that, “Many conservatives gave up, at least for the time being, on the idea of transforming the public school and sought instead ‘to restore power to local evangelical communities by creating a parallel educational culture’” (p. 108). Because of this, Julie Ingersoll notes in Building God’s Kingdom, homeschooling has become “the single most important tool for the exercise of dominion” (p. 98).
For many evangelical homeschoolers, the crowning achievement of their separatist movement is Patrick Henry College (PHC), a college started by Michael Farris. Dubiously dubbed “God’s Harvard” by journalist Hanna Rosin, PHC is like the crown jewel of Farris’s efforts to promote his own version of Christian Reconstructionism. It is the culmination of Farris’s and other homeschooling leaders’ efforts to create an entirely parallel American society for their children.
Farris discusses his Reconstructionist goals in his 2005 book, The Joshua Generation. The book lays out Farris’s case for continuing the parallel society homeschoolers created for their children’s primary education into secondary education as well. In other words, ensuring that children do not leave their evangelical cocoon until they are college graduates and ready to “engage wholeheartedly in the battle to take the land” (p. 11). While much of the book is Farris baldly promoting PHC, he also makes clear he wants other evangelical colleges to step up as well in their efforts to raise “Christians and patriots”—Christanity and patriotism being the “two core characteristics” Farris believes children need “to succeed” (p. 144-5). By Christianity and patriotism Farris means white, Christian Nationalism—though Farris prefers the phrase “our spiritual and national heritage” (p. 13).
Through learning this heritage via homeschooling and being raised in a parallel society, Farris hopes homeschool graduates will become adept cultural warriors who can lead the United States back to its allegedly Christian roots.
Homeschooling as Trojan Horse
White flight and the desire to create a parallel society together point to why homeschooling is so vital to American evangelicals. Homeschooling has become so much more than simply an alternative educational practice. It has become a way of life, a culture in itself. It is the primary tool many evangelicals employ to preserve their white, Christian Nationalist worldview and practices. It is their shield against an increasingly secular and integrated surrounding culture.
When evangelicals promote homeschooling as a human right, in other words, we must understand what that means: it is a Trojan Horse that contains multitudes. There is a reason homeschooling has brought social and political conservatives around the world together, when they normally would vehemently denounce one another as heretics. That reason is the perceived efficacy of homeschooling to accomplish their shared conservative goals: namely, their anti-rights agenda grounded in their flawed model of family.
This is seen in the article, “The Human Right of Home Education,” written by HSLDA’s Director of Global Relations and GHEX board member Mike Donnelly. Published in 2016 by the GHEX-affiliated Journal of School Choice, the article sets forth Donnelly’s belief that the ECHR should affirm that “home education is a right of parents and children that must be protected by every state.” Pulling and manipulating language from international human rights documents, Donnelly grounds his arguments for homeschooling on the importance of family: “While home education is not mentioned by name in international human rights treaties, it…emanates out of…the recognition of the family as the fundamental group unit of society.”
Family is important because “the key to understanding how the homeschooling agenda fits into the broader universe of moral conservatism,” say Permoser and Stoeckl, “is the concept of ‘the natural family.’ Conservative homeschooling advocates consider the family as a unit that precedes the state and society and is ontologically separate from it. They see the family as a ‘natural’ unit by contrast to the state and society which they see as ‘artificial’ human constructs.”
For conservatives, though, family is not just any family. It is a patriarchal family, where the father reigns supreme and the wife and children must submit to his will. Permoser and Stoeckl report that, at the 2018 GHEX Conference in Russia, GHEX board member Irina Shamolina—spouse of fellow GHEX board member Alexey Komov—declared outright that, “The natural family is a patriarchal family.” Arguing for the Russian Orthodox Church’s position of patriarchy, Shamolina mirrored former evangelical homeschooling leader Bill Gothard and his umbrella of protection: “The Church defines the family as a home church, where the father acts as a priest, the mother as a deacon, and the kids are the disciples… Only at home children can learn family values and be raised as Christians.”
This idea of the natural family is a direct influence of Christian Reconstructionism. As Ingersoll states, Reconstructionists believe that “the family is God’s first and central institution, even over the church” (p. 92). Consequently, no sphere of authority—whether a state or a church or another such community—has the right to interfere with a family. Another deduction Reconstructionists make from this is that only the family has the right to educate. As the late Chris Klicka of HSLDA once wrote, “God has given the authority and the responsibility of educating children to the parents only. In other words, the state has no responsibility in education” (Ingersoll, p. 103-4).
This includes any sort of oversight over education as well, which is why homeschoolers so virulently oppose oversight of homeschooling. In Write These Laws On Your Children, Robert Kunzman highlights that, “The right of parents to raise and educate their children—and the complete lack of government authority in that regard—is perhaps the foundational conviction in homeschooling. For conservative Christian homeschoolers, this clearly has theological underpinnings” (p. 181).
When evangelicals and their international allies advocate for homeschooling, in other words, that advocacy contains a slew of ideological underpinnings and socially and politically conservative causes all aimed to bring about a revolution of the halls of power of each advocate’s respective country. As Permoser and Stoeckl write,
“Homeschooling is particularly interesting to actors pursuing [a morally conservative worldview] because it is a door to achieve a number of other goals. Homeschooling is not only about homeschooling. It is about asserting parental rights as the key value for decisions about family issues. Therefore, it functions as a first step into inverting the order of priorities in terms of whose rights have precedence and thus achieving a general reframing of human rights and a consolidation of a particular understanding of the family.”
The tangible results of these goals are clear: a consolidation of power behind the family patriarch and a dismantling of anything and everything that would threaten that power, including the rights of children, women, people of color, and LGBTQIA people. As we observed previously, the individuals that make up GHEX promote an anti-rights agenda, so this ought not surprise us. But still, the extremism must be understood. Those individuals are part of what Katherine Stewart describes in The Power Worshippers as “the growing global movement to defend the ‘natural family’ against the supposedly corrosive force of feminism, liberalism, and LGBT equality” (p. 43). And as Ingersoll explains, their agenda involves “the elimination of public education and any government regulation of ‘parents’ rights,’ including dismantling child welfare agencies, departments of children and families, and child protective services” (p. 115).
The fact that GHEX has operated under the radar for almost a decade now—since 2012—without even as much as a Wikipedia page is alarming. American evangelicals have had almost a decade to lay the groundwork for spreading their version of white, Christian Nationalism around the globe and transforming it into an international movement that unifies social and political conservatives of all stripes. The evangelicals’ culture wars, in other words, are no longer American only. They have been successfully exported and are continuing to be successfully exported. And GHEX has been at the forefront of all of this.
Through advocacy before national and international courts, outreach to like-minded conservatives around the world, and biased, activistic research, GHEX members have succeeded in becoming, Permoser and Stoeckl argue, “fully accepted as legitimate players within international institutions.” That would be troubling enough in it itself. But they have also discovered homeschooling is a secret weapon, as it “is one topic that creates coherence and cooperation among moral conservatives from all over the world.” Through homeschooling, “moral conservatism is developing into a transnational ideology.”
This means the effort to protect homeschooled children has become that much larger. It is not only American children who are at risk of the extremism perpetuated by HSLDA in the United States. With GHEX, HSLDA and its partners have their sights set much higher. The world is their mission field and they will not stop until everyone is made in their image.