Often underserved by traditional schools, Black families are banding together to educate their children, sometimes with an unexpected funding source: the Koch family and other conservative donors
In 2011, Bernita moved her family—which also included her older son, Carlos—to Detroit’s East English neighborhood, where she bought a three-story, yellow brick house for twelve thousand dollars. Victoria, then in fourth grade, transferred to Brenda Scott Academy, where two girls began bullying her. One wrote “I’m fat” in black pen on the back of Victoria’s shirt. On another occasion, one of the girls spit at Victoria. She screamed at them, and was suspended. (That year, administrators suspended three hundred and forty Black students, or forty-two per cent of the school’s Black population, and another sixteen Black girls were arrested there.)
Victoria moved to a top-rated charter school, where she lasted only a few months—she said that an administrator picked on certain Black students. By fifth grade, Victoria had attended five schools, and she was tired of being the new kid. She brought up homeschooling when she was reprimanded for having blue braids, and again in eighth grade, after some boys dared each other to try picking her up as she sat at her desk. Homeschooling, she said, would allow her to learn at her own pace, without anyone making fun of her. Bernita was sympathetic, but she told Victoria that she couldn’t teach her. She was a single mom, and she’d never completed her college degree.
For high school, Victoria enrolled in a majority-white charter school. Before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered Detroit’s school system, which serves about fifty-three thousand children, she had failed chemistry and barely passed algebra. Soon after school went remote, in March, 2020, Victoria asked Bernita if she could drop out and take a job doing nails.
During the first months of lockdown, Bernita, who works as an educational consultant, spent hours each day talking to other parents of students in the Detroit system on Zoom and Facebook. One mother told her that she had shut herself in the bathroom to cry after overhearing teachers berate her children on Microsoft Teams. Others told Bernita they’d only just discovered that their kids had been performing below grade level. (Before the pandemic, six per cent of Detroit’s fourth graders met proficiency benchmarks in math, and seven per cent in reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.)
Early one evening last July, before Victoria’s senior year, Bernita and Victoria pulled into their driveway and found that a container of dish soap they’d bought at Sam’s Club had spilled in the trunk. While Bernita bailed out the soap using a three-ring binder and some old rags, Victoria looked down the cracked driveway and pointed at a swarm of fireflies. “What makes them glow?” she asked.
Victoria looked up from her phone. The fireflies lit up around them. “Really?” she asked.
“Yep,” Bernita said. “This is homeschooling. This is science. We about to do this for real.”
Most of the parents told Fields-Smith that the decision had been wrenching. Winning access to public education was one of the central victories of the civil-rights movement. Several parents had relatives who saw homeschooling as “a slap in the face” to the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. Others worried about harming their neighbors’ children, because public schools rely on per-pupil funding from state governments. (In 2020, around seventy per cent of Detroit public-school revenues came from per-student allocations by the state.)
Still, the parents said that they felt as if they’d had no choice, with eighty per cent citing pervasive racism and inequities. Even in the wealthy families, parents said that their kids were frequently punished or seen as troublemakers. In some cases, students had been inappropriately recommended for special-education classes or medication; other students were bullied. In a study conducted in 2010 by professors from Temple University and Montgomery County Community College, homeschooling parents said that they thought Black Americans had been tricked into fighting for integration. “Somebody put in our heads that being around your own kind was the worst thing in the world. How you need to be in better neighborhoods, in neighborhoods where people don’t want you, in schools where people don’t want to teach you,” a mother in Virginia, who was homeschooling two children, said.
Bernita and Victoria first encountered a Black homeschooling family in 2015, when Victoria was in seventh grade and attending an after-school music class with a girl named Zwena Gray. Zwena’s mother, Kija, had worked for many years as a substitute teacher in the University Prep School charter system. Most schools, in her view, prioritize whiteness—the kids are taught about white politicians and white inventors, and teachers and Black children are pushed toward compliance rather than creativity. Kija’s son, Kafele, was frequently bullied. When he was in eighth grade, administrators at the charter school he was attending threatened to suspend him for not tucking in his shirt. Kija decided to homeschool him, and later Zwena, who was then in fifth grade. The children enrolled in online courses; Kija spent less time substitute teaching, and her husband, who works for the Detroit Health Department, also helped. Kafele returned to the charter school in eleventh grade, but Zwena never went back to school.
When we talked in her dining room, Kija was baking cinnamon pound cakes to sell. As she described her journey from charter-school teacher to homeschool enthusiast, she drew a Biblical parallel: “Satan was the closest thing to God, and he saw this shit for what it was, and he was, like, ‘Oh, hell no.’ He started to question things, and that’s what made him cast out, because he didn’t have blind faith—he had critical faith.”
Bernita was astonished by what Kija had achieved with her children. Zwena had built robots, written code for Web sites, and designed her own clothes. But Kija had a bachelor’s degree and a background in teaching. Bernita still couldn’t see homeschooling as an option for Victoria.
In early 2020, an online acquaintance of Bernita’s, Keri Rodrigues, a former labor organizer in Massachusetts and the president of a new organization called the National Parents Union, persuaded her to begin hosting a weekly forum for parents on Facebook Live. At the beginning of June, Bernita invited Kija on as a guest. It was a week after the police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in Minneapolis; thousands of people were protesting in downtown Detroit. The parents who spoke in the Facebook forum connected the uprising for racial justice with their experiences in the educational system. One mother said that she had tried many public and private schools; at all of them, the front office was filled with Black boys awaiting discipline.
Arlin and Rebekah Horton, who met at Bob Jones University, went on to found what became Abeka, a Christian publisher that produces some of the country’s most popular homeschooling materials. Abeka’s “America: Land I Love,” for eighth graders, first published in 1996 and now in its third edition, argued that slavery allowed Black people to find Jesus. Abeka’s eleventh-grade textbook “United States History: Heritage of Freedom,” first published in 1983 and now in its fourth edition, claimed that the Ku Klux Klan only occasionally resorted to violence. A 2018 investigation by the Orlando Sentinel found that Abeka was still producing textbooks stating that “the slave who knew Christ had more freedom than a free person who did not know the Savior.”
Early supporters of homeschooling wanted as little government intervention as possible and advocated against legislative proposals that would have sent money their way, Brown told me. “It was a bargain they were unwilling to take,” he said. “In exchange for small amounts of funding, they would be subject to the things they fear most, which was having to adhere to a set of standardized educational schooling practices, on everything from teacher certification to testing to curricular choice.”
In 1983, a group of white evangelical lawyers formed the Home School Legal Defense Association, to represent homeschooling parents who’d been arrested for not sending their children to school. When officers arrested two farmers in Michigan who’d been educating their children at home without a license, the H.S.L.D.A. spent nearly a decade fighting their case. In 1993, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that homeschooling parents in Michigan did not need to be certified. (Michael Farris, the founding president of the H.S.L.D.A. and its board chairman, is now head of the conservative Christian nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, which in recent years has pushed for a series of anti-gay and anti-trans bills.)