Bonnie Henthorn and her husband spent their formative years in Tyler County public schools. Between them, their two children spent at least 15 years in that school system. The family has paid taxes that support the schools for decades.
With deep roots and a historical perspective like that, Henthorn is an ideal choice for president of the Tyler County school board, a role she has filled since 2014. But none of that matters now because in January she committed the unpardonable sin of public education: She started homeschooling.
Henthorn announced the family decision at the Jan. 4 school board meeting, citing two reasons that had nothing to do with Tyler County schools. “One is that I want them to have a more Christian-based education,” she said. “… Number two is I no longer feel that the state leadership has the best interest of the students at heart.”
That very personal decision, designed to benefit Henthorn’s sophomore son and seventh-grade daughter, quickly became the topic of a very hostile public debate.
At the meeting, board member Linda Hoover peppered Henthorn with questions. She implied that Henthorn couldn’t lead an education system if her children weren’t part of it and that pulling them from it is “a slap in the teachers’ faces.” Another board member, Jimmy Wyatt, called it a “questionable decision” that might show a lack of faith in the county school system.
The outrage escalated over the next few weeks. A Tyler County native created a Facebook group and a Change.org petition demanding Henthorn’s resignation. The Charleston Gazette-Mail published an editorial decrying the “sad mess” in Tyler County and calling Henthorn “unsuited for public school leadership.”
At the next school board meeting, the union that represents Tyler County teachers expressed its lack of confidence in Henthorn. Even West Virginia Board of Education President Michael Green, whom Henthorn specifically mentioned when criticizing state leadership, felt compelled to issue a statement.
The outcry was predictable. Any talk of homeschooling has a way of inciting the passions of people invested in the public school system. Throw in the dynamics of a homeschooling parent with both a vote on public school decisions and strong religious convictions, and you’re bound to hear, “How dare you!”
Similar clashes have occurred in other states, at least twice in the past year. Matt Schulte infuriated public school advocates when he decided to keep homeschooling his young children after being elected to Nebraska’s Lincoln Board of Education. And Texas Gov. Greg Abbott aroused scorn for appointing Donna Bahorich, a former homeschooling parent, as chairwoman of the state board.
But the gripes about homeschooling parents serving as school officials are as wrong-headed as they are foreseeable. Taxpayers don’t need to have children in public schools to formulate good ideas about how to improve the schools they help fund.
That logic would rule out young adults with pre-school children or none at all, middle-aged parents whose children are out of school, and grandparents whose children don’t even live in the area. All of those types of people have different perspectives that could be valuable on any county school board.
The same is true of homeschoolers. Maybe that’s why the requirements to serve in West Virginia are limited to relevant issues like county residence and educational achievement. Arbitrary standards that target families based on where they choose to school their children are unnecessary and divisive.
“On a school board in Lincoln,” Schulte said, “there are seven of us, and only three of us have kids in school. … What it takes to lead our schools is to have someone who’s passionate about a good education for all kids, not just their own kids.” He added that local school boards affect people’s lives more than any other government entity, “so we need really good, thoughtful people in those leadership positions.”
Bahorich wasn’t elected to the Texas Board of Education until 2012, nearly a decade after she finished homeschooling. But she said teaching her young sons until they enrolled in private Christian schools shaped her views on education in general.
“As a homeschooler, I didn’t have the regulations,” she said, so now she looks at classroom requirements with an eye toward doing only what helps. “I don’t just accept that this is the way we’ve always done it so we have to keep doing it.”
Bahorich also has a strong empathy for the work of teachers, including the long hours of planning and the challenges of creating interesting lessons. “At least I have an understanding of it because I did it for 13 years,” she said.
In West Virginia, whose governor just signed a bill easing homeschool regulations, Henthorn formed her views on state education policy as her children worked their way through the system – and she didn’t like what she saw. She took her concerns about Common Core standards to the county board in 2013.
“We listened spellbound as Bonnie recounted real examples and genuine concerns for the usurpation of parental rights, the encroachment of government into daily lives, and our school system’s path to mediocrity,” West Virginians against Common Core recounted after the meeting. “The Mama Bear Factor was on display.”
Less than a year later, Henthorn finished second in the voting for school board, and her colleagues elected her president. Speaking only for herself, she then took the fight against Common Core to the state level in 2015 during a summer interim meeting of the legislature.
As Henthorn has emphasized repeatedly, the problem is not the quality of public education in Tyler County, which last year ranked fourth among all of the school districts in West Virginia. The problem is at the state level.
Fortunately, plenty of parents in Tyler County and West Virginia share Henthorn’s concerns about Common Core. They respect her right to pull her children out of school, both to improve their education and to instill religious values that are forbidden in public schools. And they are smart enough to reject the illogical and superficial suggestion that she is suddenly disqualified to be a public servant.
Two Tyler County school board members defended Henthorn’s decision to homeschool when she announced it, as did state Senate candidate Ginger Nalley at another board meeting. There is also a Facebook page to support Henthorn.
“What more could we ask for,” county resident Dave Metzger wrote, “than a mother who is so passionate about her children’s education that she would make a stand for what she believes in and take on the challenge of homeschooling them regardless of the criticism she knew she would face.”
The key to homeschoolers like Henthorn being accepted as leaders in the debate about government-run education may be in their ability to stay focused on the mission. That worked in Texas for Bahorich, who was elected to the state board despite an opponent who made an issue of Bahorich’s homeschooling background.
She welcomes questions, even hostile ones, from state residents, especially those who are unfamiliar with homeschooling. “For most people who have not been in that world,” Bahorich said, “they just don’t get why you would do that.”
Doing extra work to improve education also can change perceptions. Bahorich, for instance, is visiting school districts around her state to discuss Texas’ goals for assessments and accountability with parents, business leaders and educators.
“You have to find ways to serve that are really going to help others,” she said. “If you come in with that attitude … I think people appreciate the honest effort.”