Eternal Vigilance Is the Price of Liberty

Whether you attribute that quotation to Wendell Phillips, Thomas Jefferson, or Patrick Henry, it's the truth, and no less true when it comes to the rights of parents to educate their own children.

When we first considered educating our children at home, that right was in legal limbo here in Florida, not being mentioned in the statutes at all. Some homeschoolers stayed under the government's radar by never registering their children for school in the first place (and staying out of sight during school hours), and others registered their homes as private schools, but I believe the most common choice was to homeschool under the "umbrella" of an existing private school. Some private schools were set up specifically for homeschoolers to be able to choose that option. It worked reasonably well, and thus some homeschoolers were reluctant to rock the boat when others pushed to make home education specifically legal. They were—quite reasonably—afraid that bringing the issue to the attention of lawmakers might result in less freedom rather than more. It's a legitimate fear, but recent events in California show the danger of not making rights and freedoms explicit.

A California appellate court ruling in the case of one specific family has thrown into confusion the legal status of homeschoolers in the whole state. The homeschooling family came to the attention of the authorities when the oldest child made accusations of child abuse. Whether these accusations were valid or a rebellious teen's reaction to resonable and legitimate family restrictions and discipline is not the point here—I only mention it because there's a general assumption that the parents were guilty, and I know personally that the alternate scenario is sometimes the truth. The matter of immediate concern to other homeschoolers is that the court made a general ruling on the legitimacy of homeschooling, and "published" it, making it available as legal precedent for other court cases. The judges ruled that parents do not have a right to educate their own children unless they hold valid state teaching certification at the appropriate grade level.

Several things are frightening about this, not the least of which is that the issue didn't even come to light until several days after the court decision had been made. The battle was lost before it was joined.

California homeschoolers are trying not to panic. The host that has arisen in their support includes Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger and the state superintendent of education, Jack O’Connell, as well as the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). Predictably, however, opponents are taking advantage of the opportunity as well. Los Angeles teachers' union president A.J. Duffy: What's best for a child is to be taught by a credentialed teacher. Los Angeles Daily News columnist Paul Kujawsky: [W]hat could work would be a regulatory scheme in which the California Department of Education creates standards for initial training and continuing supervision of home-schooling parents. This training and supervision could be carried out by organizations of credentialed teachers under contract with the department. Such a solution may not satisfy everyone, but it would preserve home schools while ensuring that their students are getting the sort of education California law requires. Note that Kujawsky's "solution" says nothing about how well children are actually learning and puts parents under direct control of the state and the teachers' union. (See Kujawksy's whole column here.)

If this doesn't scare you, read this column by Steven Greenhut of the Orange County (California) Register. Here are few excerpts (emphasis mine).

The judges—two Republican appointees and one Democratic appointee—argued that "parents do not have a constitutional right to home-school their children. … Because parents have a legal duty to see to their children's schooling within the provisions of these laws, parents who fail to do so may be subject to a criminal complaint against them, found guilty of an infraction and subject to imposition of fines or an order to complete a parent education and counseling program." The court made it clear that parents face a loss of custody if they don't comply, arguing that "the juvenile court has authority to limit a parent's control over a dependent child.

The ruling is shockingly totalitarian, as it echoes this point: "In obedience to the constitutional mandate to bring about a general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence, the Legislature, over the years, enacted a series of laws. A primary purpose of the educational system is to train school children in good citizenship, patriotism and loyalty to the state and the nation as a means of protecting the public welfare."

Is this California or Germany? I haven't written about the homeschooling horrors in Germany since the Melissa Busekros case (see here, here, and here), but the situation is so bad people are fleeing the country rather than turn their children over to the state. Homeschooling has become a significant movement in the United States, and most families who now teach their children at home have no memories of the battles that won them that freedom. They may have to repeat them.

I have had my quarrels with the HSLDA in the past, but nonetheless we chose to support them (and join them) while we were actively homeschooling, and I would do so again. As far as I can tell, they are the best and most effective organization around for monitoring the legal assaults on homeschooling, both here and abroad, and as they have matured they seem to have become more calm and less likely to panic unnecessarily (one of my objections in the past). One HSLDA opponent complained that the organization should have quietly gone away after home education was legalized in all states, instead of continuing to grow. Much as I respect that person, one California court decision was all it took to prove him wrong.

I'm not sure of the value of petitions, especially the electronic variety, and though I've signed some physical petitions, I'd never signed one online. Until now. The HSLDA website has a petition requesting that the California Supreme Court "depublish" this case, which would mean it could not be sited as legal precedent. Normally I would not expect petitioners to matter if they are not California citizens, but the HSLDA would like to show broad national support as well, so I signed.

On the other side of the continent, Washington, DC is now considering instituting Draconian restrictions for its homeschoolers. According to this Washington Times column by J. Michael Smith, president of the HSLDA, The regulations cover everything from record keeping and home visits to the power of government officials to immediately terminate a homeschool program at their discretion.

Here's an interesting map, taken from this San Jose, California Mercury News article.


Note that both California and Washington, DC were considered to be "low regulation." Connecticut is a great place to live if you want to homeschool, almost an island in the midst of its heavy-handed neighbors. North Dakota, on the other hand, stands out in the other direction.

Many people choose where to live based on the quality of the public schools. Homeschoolers are liberated from that concern, but would do well to consider the homeschooling regulations to which they would be subjecting themselves. Even so, nothing can be taken for granted. To continue the Wendell Phillips quote, Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot. That's a lower case "d" democrat—Republicans are not exempt.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, March 18, 2008 at 9:02 am | Edit
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thanks for posting about this. i've been following it since the sotry broke (and since the majority of blogs i read are homeschoolers, or even california homeschoolers).
i had no idea our state was one of the most strict when it came to homeschooling rules. i guess i just never realized other states had less rules or regulations for hoemschoolers

Posted by ~liz on Tuesday, March 18, 2008 at 1:21 pm

PA does have more regulations than other states, but they are workable even to those of us tending towards the unschooling direction. We have some friends who are quite familiar with the PA laws (because there are some evaluators around here who ask for more than the law asks for and this family wanted to know their rights) so they would probably be good to talk to. We just talked to our closest friends who are homeschooling, but so far they have not had to do much. Their oldest will be turning eight this summer, which is the PA compulsory age, so they will now have to register and do all the "stuff."

Posted by joyful on Tuesday, March 18, 2008 at 3:45 pm

that's what i was wondering - when to actually do all the "stuff" - the registering, or keeping of notebooks. i would have no idea what to do now except record every time rowan reads to me, or sawyer sounds out letters. then nature walking and learning in the kitchen. i'd like to eventually talk to your friends, heather!
(sorry for the taking over of your blog, linda!)

Posted by ~liz on Tuesday, March 18, 2008 at 6:25 pm

That's what it's here for, Liz!

Posted by SursumCorda on Tuesday, March 18, 2008 at 7:01 pm

It's interesting that you reference Germany regarding states' homeschooling laws.

Try this if you haven't already:

The fact is, the court was right about one thing. Government schools are all about teaching state obedience, not rearing an independent, moral individual.

Keeping children out of government schools is IMO, the most important political issue parents have an interest in. If there's one issue to not compromise on, this is it.

In addition to demanding the freedom to homeschool, the state has no business even asking you for lesson plans etc. any more than it has the right to ask for documentation of your religious beliefs. What schooling is ought to be defined by parents without any state involvment, period.

Posted by Phillip on Friday, March 21, 2008 at 1:02 pm

Welcome, Phillip! I, too, am a fan of John Taylor Gatto, and think his Underground History of American Education should be read by all parents before they send their children to school. That way they'll at least be alert to the systemic problems even when their particular experiences are positive.

I do think that school is less about teaching state obedience and more about teaching conformity, compliance and passivity. What is your experience?

Thank you for your comment.

Posted by SursumCorda on Friday, March 21, 2008 at 3:03 pm

No I think it's equally about state obedience too. One huge difference between government schools and private schools for example is that in government schools you are treated like a criminal. You are presumed guilty. This acclaimates children to being forced / required to justify everything to representatives of the state, even going potty. In private school, so long as you're getting your work done, you're free to use your time however you'd like.

Posted by Phillip on Saturday, March 22, 2008 at 3:11 pm