The Watchmen trudged through pouring rain on Jan. 8 to get to the first day of the 2013 legislative session at the Texas Capitol in Austin, but it was worth it. Paul Hastings, David Huber, Nathan Exley, Jeremy Newman, Trent Williams, and Ben Snodgrass, all aged 19-23, sat through a swearing-in ceremony, during which a young woman fainted, and a speech by Gov. Rick Perry to become the youngest registered lobbyists in Texas.
They're all recent homeschool graduates who have put college on hold to intern on behalf of the Texas Home School Coalition. They all live in an Austin apartment, eat home-cooked meals together, and attend the same Bible study.
"During work hours, we work like crazy, and then we debate," Hastings said. They take their name from Isaiah 62:6: "On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent."
In the current 140-day session, the Watchmen are promoting two bills. The first is a parental rights amendment to the Texas Grandparent Access Statute, which allows grandparents to sue parents for access or possession of children. THSC wants to raise the standard of evidence from "preponderance" to "clear and convincing" so it matches the standards for gaining access or possession in other parts of the Family Code. The THSC charges that some grandparents, because they object to homeschooling, use the law to take children away from their parents.
The other, an equal access bill, would allow homeschool children to participate in University Interscholastic League activities, such as sports. Most other states already allow access to homeschoolers.
Another 30 bills have language that threatens homeschooling, Snodgrass said, sometimes inadvertently or indirectly.
The Watchmen have a plan to visit the offices of all 181 legislators in a single day, if necessary. But so far, they have focused on making contacts with representatives and their aides. They also locate homeschooling families willing to testify about the issues or call up legislators.
"The representatives don't necessarily get too much feedback," said Williams, the legislative communications director. "If you get about 100 calls in, that could totally change his mind, depending on the issue."
The team has been surprised at how friendly and attentive legislators and aides have been. Snodgrass recalled sitting in the office of Democratic powerbroker Sen. Judith Zaffirini, surrounded by honorary gavels and large bookcases, as an aide questioned him carefully about the parental rights bill.
"You're someone who they need to listen to because you have concerns that their constituents are very much concerned with," Snodgrass said.
Williams encourages homeschool organizations in other states to try similar programs. "It mostly involves networking," Williams said. "If they can do that, they can make a very large impact on the process."
THSC hired Hastings, at 23 the oldest Watchman and the only paid member, as a lobbyist two years ago, but eventually he became overwhelmed. "We could have hired full-time, professional lobbyists," he said. "But they're really expensive and don't know as much about these issues as homeschoolers do."
The Watchmen say some assume their legal rights to homeschool are secure, but the grandparent access issue shows how some legislators still push to restrict those rights.
"The Texas homeschool community has set us up as this line of defense," Hastings said. "If we weren't there, then there wouldn't be another organization looking out for the rights of homeschoolers."