Home Schooling as a Key Factor in a Political Election: A Case Study

Susan A. McDowell, Ed.D.
P.O. Box 148351
Nashville, Tennessee 37214-8351

Keywords: Homeschooling, home schooling, home education, politics, political.

As an educational movement, home schooling continues to experience phenomenal growth. Currently, an estimated 1.5 to 1.7 million children (Golden, 2000); Ray, 1999) are home schooled in the United States. Research on the academic achievement and social adjustment of home schooled children abounds, as well as research presenting the beliefs, practices, socioeconomic levels, educational background, and ethnicity of home schooling parents. Although some voices have offered negative commentaries on the practice of home school (e.g., Apple, 2000; Lubienski, 2000; National Education Association, 1990; Peterson, 1997), research studies indicate that home schooled students perform well in terms of both academic achievement (Ray, 1997, 1999, 2000; Rudner, 1999; Wartes, 1988) and social and psychological development (Kelley, 1991: Medlin, 2000; Shyers, 1992). Home education is thriving; its ranks are swelling, and its children – according to the most current research – are flourishing.
Given these firmly established facts, one cannot help but wonder what impact the home schooling movement might have on other aspects of society, particularly the political. It is the purpose of this paper to examine the impact of home schooling in the political arena, specifically the role this educational choice played in a race for Tennessee state representative of the 38th district. Prior to looking at the specific, however, a brief look at the national political landscape will help to place matters in better perspective, as follows.
Home Schooling in the National Political Arena:
An Overview
The home education movement is not only experiencing a growing acceptance within the popular culture (Kantrowitz & Winger, 1998; Lines, 1996), it is also finding an increasingly strong and rapidly expanding voice on the political front. The history of home schoolers’ lobbying efforts is a highly impressive one by any standard. In 1999, Congress – in response to “heavy lobbying from organizations that promote home schooling” – implemented an exemption for home schooled children (Burd, 1999, p. 1), in that they would no longer be required to take an ability-to-benefit test in order to be eligible for federal student aid. And as far back as 1997, Joel Belz asked,
What special interest group in American society right now may be most effective at lobbying the U.S. Congress?  If you guessed that it’s a band of educators, you’d be right. But if you picked the National Education Association – the very liberal union of public school teachers that is so active in public affairs – you might well be wrong these days. For according to Rep. William Goodling (R-PA), a 22-year veteran of Congress and Chairman now of the influential Education and Labor Committee, the homeschoolers of our country … have developed more expertise than any other group in getting the attention of our nation’s lawmakers … .
I would suggest that Rep. Goodling’s high praise of homeschoolers for their ability to win points in Congress may represent no more than the tip of an iceberg – that it’s only a precursor of other ways in which homeschoolers may more and more shape society far out of proportion to their numbers and acceptability to the rest of society. (1997, p. 5)
Belz’s prophecy has come true to a degree that would likely surprise even him. Indeed, in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Home Schoolers Learn How to Gain Clout Inside the Beltway” (and subtitled, “A Powerful Lobbying Force, Parents Wage Campaigns Through Phone and Fax”), the following observation was made:
Although often portrayed as an isolated fringe group, parents who teach their children at home have become inside-the-Beltway pros, wielding enough clout to help block a Clinton administration bid for national student testing, launch their own political action committee and push their concerns into the midst of this
year’s presidential race.
Despite relatively small numbers – an estimated million to 1.5 million of the nation’s 53 million schoolchildren are taught at home – their ability to overwhelm Congress and state legislatures with phone calls, faxes, e-mails, and visits has won them a unique status as educational conscientious objectors, in the form of exemptions from compulsory attendance laws and state tests. (Golden, 2000, p. A1)
In sum and in brief, not only is the home education movement gaining in terms of numbers (Ray, 1999) and societal acceptance (Lines, 1996), but it is also gaining momentum in its ability to affect the political environment. What role does this increasingly formidable, highly politically effective, and often controversial educational movement actually play in the political world? More importantly to the purposes of this paper, what role does home schooling play in smaller, but equally important, political contests?
Home Schooling in the Local Political Arena:
A Case Study
While it may, as an educational movement, possess the power to “influence educational policy nationwide” (Golden, 2000, p. A1), does home schooling as a candidate’s educational choice carry any real weight – negative or positive — in smaller, state district political elections?  When we shift our gaze from the national political arena to the much smaller state district political arena, we must ask, does the home schooling movement’s considerable political prowess make itself felt in the small as well as the large?
Not necessarily. Despite the growing acceptance of home schooling as an educational alternative, there are still certain segments of the population around the country for whom home schooling is something of a suspicious anomaly. Unfortunately for the home schooling political candidate who is the subject of this case study, such a segment made up enough of the voter base in his district to turn the tide against him in two political elections against the same opponent.
Prior to jumping into a discussion of the complex issues besetting this particular candidate in these particular elections, it would be wise to establish first the “who, what, when, and where” of these particular political races.
The Facts of the Contests:
Who, What, When, and Where
The home schooling candidate in this race was Bill Cooper, an attorney currently in private practice residing with his wife and two children in Oneida, TN. Cooper was county attorney from 1991 to 1994, representing the school board – among others — in various legal actions.
Cooper’s opponent was Les Winningham, a career educator who has been at different times a teacher, a principal, a superintendent of schools, and an administrator in the school district. Winningham is the Tennessee State house Chairman of the K-12 subcommittee on education and Vice-Chairman of the full committee. He and his wife also reside in Oneida, TN.
Insofar as political party affiliations are concerned, it should be noted that Bill Cooper is a Republican, and that Les Winningham is a Democrat. It should also be noted that Cooper was interviewed by the researcher on Saturday, September 30, 2000; Winningham was interviewed on Thursday, October 26, 2000.
The races were for Tennessee state representative of the 38th District.
Bill Cooper and Les Winningham ran against each other twice – in 1996 and 1998— for the same state house seat. Winningham won both races, although Cooper was narrowly defeated in the 1996 election.


The 38th District is in east Tennessee, and is made up of a number of rural counties and portions of counties, specifically Scott, Pickett, Clay, Jackson, and Macon Counties. The “where” of this contest played a large part insofar as perceptions of home schooling are concerned, and will be discussed and explored in greater detail in the “other factors” section.
How the Foundation was Laid: The Home Schooling
Candidate as the “Other”
The fact that Cooper had chosen home schooling as an educational alternative for his own children was carefully crafted by his opponent into a foundational issue – an issue that had “a significant impact” on the election, according to Cooper. Interestingly enough, although Cooper’s home schooling choice was cited often in the 1996 campaign,  Cooper was never openly and directly attacked concerning his educational choice during either the 1996 or the 1998 campaign, as he himself noted,
He [Winningham] works with the “undertow” in [my choice to pursue] home schooling … . He never tags it. He can’t. Because if he does, what is he implicitly saying? He’s implicitly saying that parents aren’t to be given a choice in the raising of their children. He’s saying, “The state owns your child. So the state will educate it.”  Well, he can’t go that far …
Despite the lack of a large-scale “open” attack on Cooper’s educational choice, home schooling was made a persistent issue in both races, with leading questions concerning home schooling being asked by Winningham campaign workers while “working the phones,”[1] and questionable definitions and descriptions of home schooling being used by Winningham himself during local speeches and town hall meetings.[2]  The purpose of these actions was evidently to highlight Cooper’s educational choice and to spread the perception that “he’s not one of us.”  This particular modus operandi continued throughout the 1996 media campaign as well.

Home Schooling as an Issue in the 1996 Print Media Campaign

In his political advertisement entitled, “Tall, tall tales of Bill Cooper,” Les Winningham had the following to say concerning his opponent’s choice of home schooling:
I have worked very hard for our schools to see they have equal funding and the same opportunity as larger schools. But I understand Bill Cooper says that our schools and students are not good enough for his children. He teaches his children at home. Well, in most families, both parents work. They, like I, are thankful we have excellent schools, teachers, and students, but ours are not good enough to associate with the Coopers. (Macon County Chronicle, October 22, 1996, p. 12)

Later on, in the same ad, Winningham responds to Cooper’s allegation that he had raised sales taxes with the following rebuttal:

State sales taxes fund the vast improvement in all our schools. Any other funding source is the local property tax. Bill, I’m sorry you are opposing our schools and wanting property owners to foot the bills. (Macon County Chronicle, October 22, 1996, p. 12).

In response to Winningham’s attack on his choice to home school his children, Bill Cooper placed the following ad within a few days:

Les Winningham’s personal attack on my family in the newspapers last week merits a response. While we have chosen home schooling as an alternative way to educate our children, that in no ways means we think less of those who don’t. In fact, we pay taxes to support public education, just like every other property owner. However, not every family has the same needs.

Our country was founded on the idea that families have the freedom to choose the directions they wish to take. I thought Les Winningham believed that when he supported home school legislation in the past, such as House Bill 0418, which was passed on May 8, 1985. That law specifically recognized the rights of parents to home school their children.

It is inconsistent of Les Winningham to support home schooling in Nashville and oppose home schooling in Scott County. But, based upon his remarks in last week’s newspapers, I am sure that if re-elected, Les Winningham will oppose home schooling in the future, which would be another example of a Constitutional right being stripped away from us. (Scott County News, October 24, 1996, p. 2)

Not surprisingly, Winningham responds with a volley of his own the following week. This particular advertisement deals exclusively with education, and points out that:
The only real issue in this campaign is Cooper’s opposition to the Better Education Program which I sponsored. Cooper teaches his kids at home so he is not interested in the Better Education Program’s 18 million additional dollars for better textbooks, smaller classes, and better trained teachers in our schools. Bill Cooper does not understand the importance of good public schools because of his loyalty to Home Schools. (Independent Herald, October 31, 1996, p. 17)

Whether or not Cooper lost the 1996 election chiefly because of his decision to home school his children can never be known, only surmised. At any rate, the fact that Bill Cooper was a home schooling parent had been firmly established in the public’s mind well before the 1998 race. Working with that foundation, Winningham introduced an issue into the 1998 campaign that dealt a crippling blow to the Cooper campaign – one from which it would not recover.

The Death Blow to the Cooper 1998 Campaign: How Home Schooling as a Choice Made it Possible

It was Bill Cooper’s response to a single question on the Tennessee Firearms Association state candidate survey that opened the door to Winningham’s most telling attack. As Cooper relates it.

There was a Tennessee Firearms Association state candidate survey. Of course, I’m a strong advocate of the second amendment. I think the purpose of the second amendment was to arm the citizenry against the government to keep the government from disarming the people and thereby instituting tyrannical control. I believe … that was the purpose of the second amendment.

Well, anyway, they had a question on the survey that asked something to the effect of  “would you be for people who were licensed .. who had handgun permits … to carry those weapons on school properties?” Well, at that time …  there was a lot of school violence in the Memphis area being talked about in the newspapers, and of course my thoughts were, “ If you want to hire private security guards to protect the kids in the schools you would want them to be armed.” Why would you have a security guard if you’re not going to give them something to enforce law and order with?  And so I answered the question, “yes.”  Well, they [the Tennessee Firearms Association] were proud of that and put it on their web page.
As a result of Cooper’s response, the Winningham team revved up their campaign engines, having their campaign phone workers ask voters – along with the home schooling question previously noted in the 1996 campaign – “Would you be for Bill Cooper if you knew he was for kids carrying guns to school?”  This unhappy “twist” of his response to a survey was, as Cooper remembers it, so untrue … it was laughable. But they kept pounding that on the telephone… . And people, even our strong supporters, started calling and saying, “I don’t know about this, Bill.”  “I don’t know if I can be for you in this.” We’d explain it, but there wasn’t time to get that out to everybody. So, it was turning them. It was turning the tide. That was the undertow of home schooling.

How effective would that [tactic] have been if I could have said, “Hey, my kid’s a sixth grader at Oneida Elementary school. Why on earth would I want kids taking guns to school?” Then, of course, they would have said, “Well, that is kind of stupid. That’s ridiculous.”  But when they say – because I home school my children —“Well, what do you care? Your kids don’t go there.” Then the question [“Would you be for Bill Cooper if you knew he was for kids carrying guns to school?”] has more of an impact. … has more plausibility. But, they didn’t do it in print because that would be stretching it too far.

What Winningham did do in print was a very effective – if intentionally misleading – mailer sent out 2 days prior to the election. In the large, 4-page brochure, the phrase “Guns and School’s Don’t Mix” is predominantly displayed on the first page, along with a sign posted on a wire fence that reads, “Gun-free School Zone … High Profile Enforcement Area … Violations in this area will be aggressively prosecuted.”

The two-page centerfold proclaims in large print: “Bill Cooper wants to allow guns in schools,” and “Bill Cooper threatens the safety of our children.” Alongside photographs of a clearly unhappy, frowning child, a school bus, and handguns, the text reads:

Our schools need to be a safe haven for learning – an environment free of guns and violence. When our children go off to school, they shouldn’t have to worry about being safe.
Everyone knows that guns and schools don’t mix, but there are some people who are willing to play politics with the safety and well-being of our children.

If elected, Bill Cooper would make laws allowing people to carry guns into schools. If elected, Bill Cooper would threaten the safety of our children.

It sounds crazy, but it’s true.

Bill Cooper actually told a special interest group that he would co-sponsor a law allowing people to bring guns onto school property. (TN Firearms Association State Candidates Survey)
That’s right. Bill Cooper wants to let people bring guns into schools.

Bill Cooper puts politics ahead of the safe schools [sic]. Bill Cooper threatens the safety of our children.

Bill Cooper. A threat to quality schools. A threat to safe schools.

The back of the mailer has a picture of a frowning child with arms folded, wearing a backpack, and standing in front of a parked school bus. In the manner of a “no smoking” sign, the photograph has a “canceling” slash through it.

Whether or not the issue of guns in the schools cost Cooper the election is, again, impossible to determine. There is no doubt, however, that it had a very serious impact. And there is also no doubt, of course, that Cooper’s educational choice made it possible for such allegations to carry a hint of credibility.

Other Factors in the Election Which Played Against Home Schooling

One element that worked against the home schooling candidate is the perception – evidently held by many in the community — that this particular educational alternative is a genuine threat, in that it could conceivably take much-needed monies away from the public schools and the children who attend them. In addressing this issue, Cooper noted that
in a way it does, and in a way it doesn’t. There are two … really, there are several different ways the school system gets money. But let’s look at two basic ways. Number one, they get it through the property tax rate. And it’s local. We all pay it whether you utilize the school system or not, you pay that fee. And obviously, as property owners, we support the school systems. We can’t get out of it. We pay our money to them, and they gladly accept it.

The second way is through what they call ADA money, or average daily attendance money. The state bonuses each school system based upon the number of children enrolled and the average daily attendance of those enrollees. So, in a sense, by the fact that we don’t have our children enrolled at Oneida High School, or Scott High School, or wherever, we are sucking money from the system. But we’re not getting it. We don’t get the benefit of that money, but they’re not getting it either because our kids are not taking a seat within the system itself. The ADA money is very important up here  … it’s a money cow.

Another element working against home schooling as a choice involves the fact that public schools may be seen as playing a larger and more centralized role in rural communities – such as those making up the 38th district — than elsewhere, as Cooper explains, here, the government schools are more than just a place of learning — would-be learning, as they define learning – they’re more of a social center. You know. Everything revolves around the government schools. You’ve got roadblocks [to raise money] for cheerleaders. You’ve got roadblocks for the band, the Booster Clubs … and the parent organizations are very active. You know, in Oneida, when the football team was in the state play-offs, and at least twice now, I guess, headed to the state championship – the whole blasted town shuts down. So, I understand that. When you take on the public schools, or at least it appears that you’re taking on the public schools, you’re not with them – you are the “Enemy.” Home Schooling becomes an affront.

Truly, community perceptions concerning home schooling can differ vastly from district to district and from state to state. For purposes of comparison, Cooper offered the following illustration:

Say we were running in a suburban district in Houston, Texas. Well, nobody in Houston, Texas, sends their kids to the public schools if there’s any way around it. You know, so home schooling would have been applauded. We would have been championed.

Unfortunately for Bill Cooper, his constituents were from rural east Tennessee, not suburban Houston.

The Interview with Les Winningham

The interview with Les Winningham took place over the phone, and he didn’t actually have much to say about the particular political races in question. He was, however, very polite, unfailingly pleasant, and highly professional during the course of the conversation. In response to questions, Winningham answered that he didn’t believe that home schooling as an issue played “any significant role” in these elections.

Winningham then “switched gears” slightly, and added that “any politician would want to be responsive to home schoolers,” who are “accepting a lot of responsibility in educating their own children.”  “Home schooling is a positive” [rather than a negative], he asserted. In this interview, Winningham seemed to be very favorably inclined towards home schooling as an educational choice, a fact which would seem to be born out by his voting record in the Tennessee congressional assembly. It could not have been presumed — given the tone and substance of his campaign rhetoric – that Winningham had such a positive stance toward home schooling. It could be presumed, however, that had Bill Cooper sent his children to private school, the arguments used against him might have been very similar. That having been said, what do the successes of Winningham’s political maneuvers tell us about the perceptions of home schooling as an educational choice in the larger community of the 38th district? Why is this issue worthy of any attention and discussion?

Why is This Case Study Important?

Simply, the issues raised by this case study are important because they speak to the perceptions of educational alternatives in differing communities, in this instance, a mostly rural community in east Tennessee. Home schooling as an educational choice was met – by and large – with resistance there. Does this signal anything important for other educational alternatives currently in place elsewhere in the United States that might be approved, eventually, for national implementation? Will this community – and others like it – be similarly resistant to “School Voucher Programs,”  “Charter Schools,” and other educational initiatives?  Only time will tell if such rural communities are able to embrace new and different educational possibilities.


Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this case study is the fact that the home schooling movement – despite its well-publicized victories in various legal battles, its steadily growing acceptance by the public at large, its powerful and effective lobbying group in Congress, and its national headlines for outstanding academic achievement – continues to be considered an unhappy “oddity” in some communities. Clearly, home schooling as an educational choice does not in and of itself sound the “death knell” for political aspirations, as many of the elected officials in Congress choose to home school their children.[3]  Obviously, however, the successful home schooling politician must have a constituency both receptive to and accepting of his or her educational choice.


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[1] These campaign workers called registered voters and asked,  “Are you for Les Winningham or Bill Cooper?  Would you still be for Bill Cooper if you knew he home schooled his kids?”

[2] Apparently, in at least some speeches and meetings, rather than tell voters that Cooper home schools his children, Winningham chose to say that Cooper had his children “privately tutored at home.” 

[3] The following members of Congress currently (i.e., as of April 2001)  home school their children: Senator Rick Santorum (R – PA), Rep. Todd Akin (R – MO), Rep. Jeff Flake (R – AR), Rep. Jim Ryan (R – KS), Rep. Don Manzullo (R – IL), and Rep. Dave Weldon (R- FL).

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