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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Vol. 30 No. 2  Fall 2003

The Austin TEA Party: Homeschooling Controversy in Texas, 1986-1994

Ryan McIlhenny

Introduction: The Event

In the spring of 1986, thousands of parents and their children met at the University of Texas, Austin, to protest attempts by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to regulate private and home-based education. "Challenged to make a stand," former State Board of Education member Reginald McDaniel encouraged parents to "resist rigorously the encroachment of government into private affairs." To the surprise of the TEA, a large cohort of religious conservative and historically-minded home schoolers, holding signs reading "Remember Boston? Dump T.E.A," launched a formidable political offensive against what they saw as the threat of state interference. The "Austin TEA Party," as grass-roots religious parents called it, was the midpoint of a cultural controversy surrounding education reform that took more than a decade to resolve. Looking at the nation as a whole, scholars roughly identify the decade of the 1970s as the beginning of the home school movement; 1986 was a watershed year, for the majority of states granted legal protection for families who educated at home. Texas became one of the last.

Considering the activism in the lone star state, this paper analyzes the key to the home-school movement’s success: shared ideological commitments and the means by which religiously motivated parents swiftly mobilized a large body for political action. Part one considers the distinctiveness of the movement as a subcategory of conservative American movements in general (i.e., its defensive rather than offensive nature) and challenges what many critics label a "paranoid" response to "status anxiety." The next two sections examine the key tenets of the movement: home schoolers’ worldview, social makeup, and the tactics employed for political mobilization. Unsolicited government infringement in the private sphere portended the demise of the family’s liberty. The parents’ goal was to protect the "traditional" family unit against the corrosive effects of secularism represented by the actions of the state. "The state wants control of our children," said Steve Riddell, a home school parent and evangelical minister who attended the TEA party, "and we find it very difficult to stand idly by and let this happen." The concluding section highlights the legal victories that have allowed domestic education to flourish.

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