At Florida Homeschool Convention, an Education in MAGA Politics - Word&Way

At Florida Homeschool Convention, an Education in MAGA Politics

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (RNS) — With an estimated 1.7 million American children being educated outside of traditional schools, homeschooling is a big tent. An extraordinarily diverse mix of families bring up their kids this way — urban and rural, countercultural, religiously conservative, liberal and unaffiliated, neurodiverse, and, as of 2020, people on the run from the turmoil caused by the pandemic.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Florida Parent Educators Association Homeschool Convention in Kissimmee, Fla., May 23, 2024. (Photo via office of Gov. Ron DeSantis)

The homeschooling movement, on the other hand, is a much more focused entity. The 36th annual Florida Parent Educators Association Homeschool Convention, which took place in May at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Conference Center in Kissimmee, billed itself as the largest and oldest such event, drawing an estimated 18,000 attendees, exhibitors, and presenters. But though the attendees were mostly families, and the breakout sessions included universally applicable fare such as combating screen time, managing sibling rivalries, and filling gaps in home math curricula, the overarching message of the convention was about politics, not education.

And those politics were a familiar mix: authoritarian, anti-democratic, anti-women’s rights, anti-public education, anti-LGBTQ+, pro-Trump, and ostensibly based on the Bible — in short an extension of the religious right of the Republican Party.

This is hardly representative of American homeschoolers, not all of whom are Christian, let alone conservative Christian (though the data is murky, to be sure). But you wouldn’t know that from spending time in Kissimmee. “Today, if you homeschool, there is a 95% chance you’re a conservative,” said keynote speaker Joel Salatin, a self-identified “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic,” who founded and runs Polyface Farms, a sustainable agricultural operation in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

The 36th annual conference kicked off on a Thursday night (May 23) with addresses by representatives from Trail Life USA and American Heritage Girls, faith-based and “Christ-centered” alternatives to the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, according to conference organizer and emcee Suzanne Nunn. Patti Garibay, of American Heritage Girls, said Nunn “has helped hundreds of thousands of girls discover their true identity in Christ.”

A Trail Life USA color guard at the Florida Parent Educators Association Homeschool Convention in Kissimmee, Florida. (Photo by Katherine Stewart)

A Trail Life USA color guard at the Florida Parent Educators Association Homeschool Convention in Kissimmee, Fla., May 23, 2024. (Photo by Katherine Stewart)

Trail Life CEO Mark Hancock took the podium to explain that his group was created 10 years ago “in the wake of the Boy Scouts beginning to abandon their traditional values … Boys and girls are different,” he announced. “Boys and girls are different!” he repeated, to loud applause.

Later that morning the keynote speaker, Nick Adams, author of “Trump and Churchill,” among other partisan political books, boasted that he is Donald Trump’s favorite writer, citing Trump’s tweets praising his pro-Trump tomes. “We want faith, not secularism,” Adams said.

The exhibitors’ booths also showed the ties between MAGA and conservative Christian homeschooling. Turning Point USA, Eagle Forum, Liberty Counsel, the Heritage Foundation’s Heritage Action for America and other religious right-aligned activist groups were all on hand.

One booth, advocating an Article V Convention of States, also known as a constitutional convention, had some relevance to the proceedings, as it is a pet project of Michael P. Farris, who is the founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association, which relentlessly opposes any government oversight of the sector. Farris is also the founder of Patrick Henry College, which prepares a large number of home-schooled youths for careers in government.

Farris is also a member of the Council for National Policy, founded in the 1980s by “Left Behind” author Tim LaHaye and religious right architect Paul Weyrich, and once served as CEO and general counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, the religious-right legal powerhouse with an annual budget of over $100 million that formerly employed House Speaker Mike Johnson.

An event banner for the Florida Parent Educators Association Homeschool Convention. (Courtesy image)

An event banner for the Florida Parent Educators Association Homeschool Convention. (Courtesy image)

The conference proper also included more political training than you might expect at a homeschooling conference. At a breakout session called “The America Project: How to Get Involved in Elections: Rules, Laws, and Tools,” session leader Tim Meisburger, a former Heritage Foundation fellow, pronounced “a crisis of confidence in election integrity” before promoting a website,, that aims to engage conservative voters in local elections, including “How to become an election challenger”; “Challenging a procedure”; and “Challenging a voter.”

Meisburger, who as a Trump appointee at USAID reportedly told colleagues not to support the Biden transition, quickly lapped over into the dominant grievance narrative of the Trump campaign. “We are increasingly governed by a ruling elite that is capturing our institutions to create a one-party state, governed by authoritarians,” he said.

Other breakout sessions also tied homeschooling to an interest in anti-abortion politics. At a session called “Amendment 4 – The Extreme Abortion Amendment,” Florida state Sen. Erin Grall, who, with her husband, homeschools their three children, urged participants to oppose the proposed amendment to Florida’s Constitution that would block laws restricting abortions carried out before fetal viability or to protect a pregnant woman’s life and health. “Amendment 4 is deceptive,” Grall said, complaining that it would allow a “patient’s health care provider,” even if they are not a physician, to determine if an abortion is medically necessary or if a baby is viable. “The amendment goes too far, and the battle is to show that this is too far,” she said.

Though some 70% of Floridians in a recent poll backed the measure, Grall touted an anti-Amendment 4 group, “Florida Voters Against Extremism.”

Fears about a loss of social control were also present at the conference. Rebekah Ricks, founder of the anti-vax organization Moms for Medical Freedom, informed conference-goers that they “have an opportunity to put a spotlight on all the little nefarious mechanisms done in our system. We are raising up sheriff auxiliaries to be engaged and emboldened in the process.” She ended her talk on a note of hope: “The communists who have taken over our country are losing control.”

Jason Ickes, a “fair elections” advocate and gun rights activist, told his audience, “The last four years, a communist coup d’état is taking over our country. The first thing communists do is abolish gun rights. They tried it here.” Tying it all back to the Big Lie, he added, “There have been numerous convictions that you don’t read about over ballot harvesting, tampering with election systems.”

Attendees arrive at the Florida Parent Educators Association Homeschool Convention in Kissimmee, Florida. (Video screen grab)

Attendees arrive at the Florida Parent Educators Association Homeschool Convention in Kissimmee, Fla. (Video screen grab)

Linda Lacour Hobar, the author of a world history curriculum written from a “biblical worldview,” traced the evolution of many political ills to the socialist threat, which she equated to the power of the state being placed above that of God. Explaining in her seminar “The Threat of Socialism” that “feudalism was socialism,” Lacour Hobar said that German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel influenced Karl Marx, author of “The Communist Manifesto.” On her PowerPoint, a graphic read, “Marx v. The Bible.”

“They were anti-family. Hegel said we should worship the state,” she added. Citing Rand Paul and Rod Dreher, she asserted that it all goes back to Adam and Eve: “Doubting God’s governance,” she said, is the root of all evil. In another seminar, Lacour Hobar connected the Nazis and the Holocaust to the short-lived, far-right German Worker Party, which she seemed to see as an indictment of the evil of socialism all over again.

For decades, Christian Nationalist leaders have denounced public schools for allegedly promoting secularism and waging war on family values, while economic ideologues have condemned schools as purported hotbeds of socialism. Together they characterize the existing system of public education as “an indoctrination factory” or “camp.” The unspoken assumption in Kissimmee, however, was that all education is indoctrination — it’s just a matter of deciding who gets to do the indoctrinating.

So when the sessions actually got down to covering teaching, especially history and science, counterprogramming liberals was a main concern. At “Wild World of History: Teaching Globalism, its Rise and Decline,” Larry Schweikart, a retired rock-and-roll drummer-turned-professor whose curriculum goes by the “Wild World” tag, announced that he was “teaching Patriots History.” “I wrote this textbook because we didn’t like all the liberal textbooks we were dealing with,” he said, adding, “I was on the Glenn Beck show in 2010 and I gave him a copy. He held it up every night on his show.”

In the vast exhibition hall, quite a few nonreligious vendors had made it into the mix: The Nectar Group specializes in helping with dyslexia and other learning challenges, and there was First Frets Online Music Lessons, Match Champs Tutoring Services and the American Sign Language Virtual Academy. But it appeared that half of the booths or more were of the genre of Master Books, which offers books on “science” by the infamous creationist Ken Ham.

In “Climate Change for Kids,” Ham assures readers, “Man cannot destroy the earth. God promised that. But God’s Word makes it clear that one day, Jesus, who returned to the Father in Heaven after His Resurrection, will one day return to this fallen, groaning earth and judge this earth and the whole universe with a fiery end!”

From the Christian Nationalist movement’s education wing was the Child Evangelism Fellowship, an organization that seeks to evangelize children in public elementary schools; YWAM (Youth With a Mission) Publishing; Abeka, the publishing company affiliated with Pensacola Christian College that has dominated the homeschooling and conservative Christian schooling field for decades; Classical Conversations: Classical Christian Community; and Christian Light, which produces books on science, math, and social sciences that it says reflect a biblical worldview.

A Christian Light social studies textbook for homeschoolers offers a glimpse of what it means to teach from a “biblical perspective”: “Another contributing factor to the disintegration of solid family life is the confusion of roles for men and women, emphasized by such movements as Women’s Liberation, the Gay Liberation movement, and others. Satan sometimes uses these movements as a tool to destroy God’s plan for the role of men and women.”

For older children there were missionary organizations such as Teen Missions International and Pioneers, whose representatives distributed stickers that read “No More Unreached People Groups,” and on up to representatives of faith-based colleges such as Regent University, Liberty University, and Cedarville University.

For many of the speakers, the education of children appeared to be of concern in large measure to the extent that it involves rearing a generation of future staffers for an American theocracy, in which taxpayer dollars can be funneled to raise more reactionary leaders. Florida, the state with the fastest-growing homeschool population, already provides up to $8,000 per year per homeschooled child for materials or other expenditures that can be tied in any way to their education.

Florida also aids the homeschooling mission by siphoning money from the public education system. The underfunding of public schools, along with declining enrollment, has resulted in school closures in multiple public school districts.

The right to public taxpayer money is another unspoken assumption running through the event. The speakers vie with one another in expressions of loathing and disgust with “big government” in any form but often demand public support for homeschooling.

Despite its avowed distrust of government, the Florida conference had its political heroes, all of them in the Republican Party. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis swooped in on the first night of the conference and in a speech ticked all the far-right boxes. Public education, he averred, is an “indoctrination factory.” He credited his administration’s takeover of New College and the creation of the state-funded Hamilton Center with destroying diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, critical race theory, gender studies programs, and the like. He promoted “classical education” — which appears to be an interchangeable term with “patriot history” — and delivered reminders of his cash contributions to the cause: $3,000 to teachers for taking a 50-hour professional development course on civics education, with materials drawn from conservative Hillsdale College.

The conference wound down on Saturday evening with worship music, followed by the final keynote speaker, Levi Lusko, founding pastor of Fresh Life Church, with campuses across the mountain states and Pacific Northwest.

Lusko, who had little to say about homeschooling or politics per se but offered his thoughts on the nation’s spiritual future, said he “travels the world speaking about Jesus,” and declared himself “so excited about what God’s doing here.”