Thursday, March 06, 2008


Off to School

There is a most interesting legal decision out of California. Essentially, it holds that parents do not have a constitutional right to home school their children, unless they can meet the standards set by the state for public or private schools, including meeting qualification standards for teachers. Needless to say, this has sent the right wing into a tizzy, with protests from the likes of Michelle Malkin and Dr. James Dobson and replete with Godwin's Law violations.

You can find a pdf file of the decision here.

In a matter of legal custody of three minor children, brought after an investigation by the Department of Children and Family Services was triggered by complaints of physical and emotional mistreatment by one of the children, a petition was made to put two of the minors in public school. They had been home schooled to that point with some involvement by the Sunland Christian School, that supplied some materials and administered occasional tests. The lower court refused the petition based on its belief that the parents had a constitutional right to home school their children.

As the Court of Appeal noted, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, held that:

No question is raised concerning the power of the state reasonably to regulate all schools, to inspect, supervise and examine them, their teachers and pupils; to require that all children of proper age attend some school, that teachers shall be of good moral character and patriotic disposition, that certain studies plainly essential to good citizenship must be taught, and that nothing be taught which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare.' [ΒΆ] Included in the laws governing the educational program were those regulating the attendance of children at school and the power of the state to enforce compulsory education of children within the state at some school is beyond question.
California, as is common, has a provision requiring parents and guardians to send children between the ages of six and eighteen to full time schooling at either a public or private day school. An exception is made if the child is "instructed by a tutor who holds a valid state teaching credential for the grade being taught."

The issues are not particularly new. The Supreme Court of California addressed many of them back in 1953 in the case People v. Turner, the appeal of which to the U.S. Supreme Court was dismissed for lack of a substantial federal question. The Turner court held that it is constitutional to require that parents possess the qualifications prescribed by statute if the parents seek to act as their children's teachers and that it would be an unreasonable burden on the state to have to supervise each and every home in which a child was being educated.

Specifically, the Court of Appeal rejected the parent's claim that their "sincerely held religious beliefs" "based on Biblical teachings and principles" required that they home school their children.

Interestingly, the Court remanded the case to the trial court to make a determination if the parents had failed to adhere to the education law (i.e. to make a finding whether the teaching parent was certified or some other exception applied). If not, the appellate court made a point of directing that "the court should not permit the children to be enrolled in the Sunland Christian School because that school was willing to participate in the deprivation of the children's right to a legal education." Even before this ruling the home school mavens had a strategy to avoid the law, involving the pretense of setting up a private school. The attitude of the Court of Appeal suggests that such subterfuge might not go over well in future cases.

While I'm sure there are some conscientious parents that do a good enough job home schooling, all too many use it as a means of keeping their children in ignorance. Those children risk being dependent on the state and a drag on the rest of society. It is well within society's rights to demand that all children receive a minimum education competently taught.

Home schooling is an interesting, complicated and significant issue. I know several people who have home schooled their kids, or are doing so. Sometimes it's done really well and other times it's a disaster. It's tough for me to settle on an opinion about it because regulations and monitoring vary so greatly from state to state, and because the results are so uneven.
I forgot to mention, I think I like California's baseline qualifications. I'm not sure that every home schooling parent needs a teaching license (although it's not overly difficult to obtain one), but the successful completion of some level of post-secondary education should be expected.
I think it's one of those things that is reasonable enough in the abstract but, in practice, is such a can of worms that it is not worth allowing.
I don't personally have a problem with California placing some requirements upon home-schoolers - however this does appear to be a case of a low-level court making a ruling that's way outside of their jurisdiction, in a manner that's extremely disruptive to the live sof thousands of families who were following the law, without public hearings.

I have some friends who home school. The father got a PhD in aero-astro engineering from Stanford, and the mother got a Master's in Biology from Stanford and a Master's in science writing from UC Santa Cruz. She did some web writing for New Scientist and Popular Science before deciding to become a full-time mother and home-schooler, because they are unhappy with the public school system. These people are more than qualified - but not credentialed, because they didn't have to be.
I imagine, if upheld, this ruling will throw a bit of a surprise burden upon them, without any benefit to their children. I don't think it's good to raise children in isolation without exposure to good science on evolution and other matters - but this credential issue isn't as simple as just that.
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