Home-School Panic

Céleste Perrino-Walker September/October 2008
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I remember a conversation I had with a casual friend when I was first thinking of homeschooling my children. She informed me (rather smugly, I thought) that laws would soon be passed to prevent parents who did not have teaching credentials from teaching their children at home. That was fine for her because she (a) didn't have children, and (b) had teaching credentials—so she was safe if she ever did decide to homeschool. I, on the other hand, hadn't even been to college. I spent many agonizing hours mentally tallying the time it would take for me to go back to college and get certified just so I could teach my own kids at home. Thankfully, that law was never passed in Vermont. But that's not to say it never will be. Every now and then this issue rears its ugly head in various places around the country.

The latest instance was in California, and the legality of homeschooling wasn't even an issue initially. During the course of an investigation resulting in conjunction with a petition to the trial court on behalf of three minor children (In re Rachel L.[2008], Cal.App.4th), in which the eldest claimed physical and emotional abuse by her father, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services discovered that the eight children in the family had been, or were being, homeschooled by the mother, who had no teaching credentials. Even though the trial court found the education the children received to be subpar, it refused to order the children to attend public school, stating that "parents have a constitutional right to school their children in their own home." 1 Unhappy with this decision, the attorney for two of the three minor children then petitioned the appellate court for extraordinary writ relief, ask-ing them to direct the trial court to order the children be enrolled in a public or private school. 2

The appellate court started the current brouhaha by declaring that the trial court was mistaken. They found that "under provisions in the Education Code, parents do not have a constitutional right to homeschool their children."3

In order to fully understand the implications of this decision, you must first grasp California education requirements. According to the California Homeschool Network there are four options for home-school education in California. They are: "establishing your own home-based private school, enrolling in a private school that offers independent study, using a public school independent study program (ISP) or charter school that caters to homeschoolers, or, if you have a credential, using the tutorial option." 4

It's estimated that 166,000 children in California are homeschooled. Of those, "across the state, there are 18,352 students attending private schools with five or fewer students, state education officials said." 5 Meaning that if there is any change in the education requirements to require teacher credentials all those home-school teachers and students will be suddenly breaking the law. And that's just California. Each state has its own requirements. If things don't go well for homeschoolers in California the repercussions could well affect the rest of the nation.

Attorney Deborah Stevenson explains that "there is no specific language in the United States Constitution that provides parents with a fundamental 'right' to the upbringing and education of their children. The U.S. Constitution is a document limiting the powers of the federal government. It does not grant rights to individuals.

"The United States Supreme Court, however, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, did find in the 'pen-umbra' or shadows of the U.S. Constitution that parents have a fundamental liberty interest in the upbringing and education of their children. Frequently, this decision is cited and parents rely on that 'right.'"

It must be noted, however, that in that very same decision, among others, the United States Supreme Court also stated that even though parents have that fundamental right, the state also has a right to 'regulate' the right of parents in their ability to raise and educate their children. That's why we have many state statutes 'regulating' home schooling today." 6

Stevenson, in her article regarding In re Rachel L., disagrees with those who say the court's ruling was that home schooling in California is now illegal. She asserts that nothing has changed because of the decision, and that if parents comply with the state statutes they are just as free to homeschool as they were before the case was ever tried.

State superintendent of public instruction Jack O'Connell came to a similar conclusion and made an announcement stating that the California Department of Education had reviewed the February 28 California Court of Appeal ruling and nothing had changed. "I have reviewed this case, and I want to assure parents that chose to homeschool that California Department of Education policy will not change in any way as a result of this ruling. Parents still have the right to homeschool in our state." 7 While O'Connell's statement must have been a relief to homeschoolers, his is not the final word on the subject—just a strong, positive one.

But while some Californians are breathing easier—many who see the broad, sweeping, condemning language of the case as a threat are not. Governor Schwarzenegger was quick to jump to the defense of home schooling in his state with strong words of support. "Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger denounced a state appeals court ruling that severely restricts home schooling and promised Friday to change the law if necessary to guarantee that parents are able to educate their children at home."

"Every California child deserves a quality education, and parents should have the right to decide what's best for their children,' Schwarzenegger said in response to the ruling, which said children educated at home must be taught by a credentialed teacher."

"Parents should not be penalized for acting in the best interests of their children's education,' Schwarzenegger said. 'This outrageous ruling must be overturned by the courts, and if the courts don't protect parents' rights then, as elected officials, we will.'" 8

In re Rachel L. is technically applicable to one family and deals only with that family's ability to homeschool. However, the case sets a clear legal precedent that would apply to all other homeschooling families if it's not reversed. If ratified by the Supreme Court of California, the result could be a domino effect across the country.

The wording in the case that is worrisome to many people include phrases such as the following: "It is clear to us that enrollment and attendance in a public full-time day school is required by California law for minor children unless (1) the child is enrolled in a private full-time day school and actually attends that private school, (2) the child is tutored by a person holding a valid state teaching credential for the grade being taught." "California courts have held that under provisions in the Education Code, parents do not have a constitutional right to school their children in their own home." "We agree with the Shinn court's statement that 'the educational program of the State of California was designed to promote the general welfare of all the people and was not designed to accommodate the personal ideas of any individual in the field of education.'" 9

Nothing about that wording sounds innocuous.

So, who stands to lose something in this case? Just who is homeschooling anyway? Back when I was a 14-year-old freshman in the late 1970s, practically no one was. Home schooling was a fringe phenomenon practiced primarily by nonconformists. "In 1985 approximately 50,000 children were being homeschooled nationally. Today that estimate has risen to nearly 2 million. Though only 1.5 percent of school-age children, it is still a significant number. With the home- schooling community growing by 15 to 20 percent per year, home schooling is an educational choice that appears to be here to stay.

"Last year, home-schooled children swept the top three places on the National Spelling Bee, and Stanford accepted 27 percent of its home-schooled applicants, nearly twice its average acceptance rate. Home schooling has gone from the fringe to the mainstream." 10 Although in the beginning religion was cited as the major reason for home schooling, today the primary reason parents choose to homeschool is dissatisfaction with the public school system.

With the advent of the Internet the opportunities for homeschoolers will only increase and expand—if allowed to. Florida, for example, has the first state-funded virtual high school. Its promotional materials state that it presently consists of 54 percent public school students, 38 per-cent home-school students, and 8 percent private school students. Some of the benefits cited are a flexible schedule, enhanced course selection, and accommodation of alternative learning styles. Its 65 courses include AP classes.

"I was actually homeschooled for several years, as were my sisters," cites "Jake," who posted a blog comment on the Los Angeles Times article "Ruling Seen as a Threat to Many Home-Schooling Families." "All of us have college degrees and have been recognized for our academic achievements. We were taught by my mother who, at that time, did not even have a college degree, much less a teaching credential. This is just another way that the government is attempting to interfere with parenting and First Amendment rights. I plan on homeschooling my daughter and will go back to school to get my teaching credential if that is what I have to do." 11 The issue clearly struck a nerve not just with Jake, but also with the other 765 people to respond to the piece. Some were for and some were against mandating that parents be credentialed to homeschool, but all were passionate about the subject.

As are Glenn and Kathleen, a couple living in the Sacramento area, quoted in the article, who asked that their last name not be used out of fear of prosecution. "'I want to have control over what goes in my son's head, not what's put in there by people who might be on the far left who have their own ideas about indoctrinating kids,' he said. If the ruling takes effect, Glenn vowed to move his family out of state. 'If I can't homeschool my son in California, we're going to have to end up leaving California. That's how important it is to me.'" 12

The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) began a petition to the California Supreme Court to "depublish" the opinion, which would make it difficult to cite the case as precedent. In just 10 days they collected 250,000 signatures, proving that home school is indeed a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, the California Court of Appeal granted a motion for rehearing in the In re Rachel L. case."'

This is a great first step,' said Michael Ferris, chairman of HSLDA. 'We are very glad that this case will be reheard and that this opinion has been vacated, but there is no guarantee as to what the ultimate outcome will be. This case remains our top priority,' he added." 13

For now, homeschoolers in California and across the nation can breathe easy. Whether or not this is simply the calm before the storm, only time will tell.

Freelance author and editor C
Article Author: Céleste Perrino-Walker