The End of Homeschooling?

Allan C. Carlson – 03/17/08

California is developing as the site for a perfect judicial and political storm, one threatening both parental rights and educational choice.

The most recent sign was a ruling last week by a state appeals court that essentially declared homeschooling illegal, unless the parents involved held state certification as teachers or hired a certified tutor. The judgment grew out of a child-welfare dispute between the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family and Philip and Mary Long, who homeschool their eight children. Reversing a trial court decision, the Court of Appeal rejected the Longs’ assertion that they had a constitutional right to educate their children at home.

California homeschool leaders vowed to assist the Longs in an appeal to the state’s Supreme Court and urged other homeschooling Californians to remain calm. Surprisingly, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger rallied to their cause, stating that “this outrageous ruling must be overturned by the courts, and if the courts don’t protect parents’ rights then, as elected officials, we will.” According to State Education Secretary David Long, the governor considers “allowing parents without teaching credentials to educate their children” to be “a fundamental right of parental choice.”

The governor’s forthright response, though, comes in the wake of his own contribution to the problem. Only five months ago, he signed into law a measure prohibiting any form of public-school instruction or activity perceived to “promote discriminatory bias” against “gender,” with the latter-term defined to include cross-dressing and sex-change operations as well as “sexual orientation.” Analysts believe that textbooks using words such as “mother and father” or “husband and wife” must now be discarded. The measure clearly allows students to use the restrooms and lockers of the opposite sex—if they identify with that gender. Teachers and students with the temerity to suggest that homosexuality might not be “innate” or that transsexuality is “weird” also now face stiff penalties for harassment.

A third component of the California storm had arrived still earlier—during 2005—in the form of a ruling by the San Francisco–based Court of Appeals for the Ninth Federal Circuit. Ruling in a case involving California’s Palmdale School District, the court unanimously held that parents surrender virtually all rights over their children once they pass “the threshold of the [public] school door.” Dismissing constitutional protections dating from the 1920s, the court held that parents “have no constitutional right . . . to prevent a public school from providing its students with whatever information it wishes to provide, sexual or otherwise, when and as the school determines it is appropriate to do so.”

These latter two developments have led to the formation of a group called Exodus Mandate, composed largely of Christian pastors and lay leaders. The group has urged parents to pull their children out of the California public schools, placing them instead either in private religious or home schools. Of course, last week’s ruling threatens key elements of that escape route, pressing families back again into the state-regulated system. The perfect storm is now nearly consummated, with families forced to submit to the dictates of the state.

Is this conflation of court cases and legislative acts merely the result of coincidence, as Governor Schwarzenegger would seem to believe? Actually, a deep hostility to parental rights and family life lies at the heart of the public-school enterprise, a truth which belies his selective indignation. The Common School Journal, founded by Horace Mann and his Massachusetts colleagues back in 1838, crafted the intellectual rationale for state-mandated education. It made the deconstruction of family life a regular theme. Sample passages include:

  • “the little interests or conveniences of the family” must be subordinated to “the paramount subject” of the school (1841);
  • “[T]hese are . . . illustrations of the folly of a parent, who interferes with and perplexes a teacher while instructing or training his child” (1846);
  • “[T]here are many worthless parents” (1841).

Indeed, a close disciple of Horace Mann named John Swett served as superintendent of the California state schools during the 1860s. He was quite forthright in his assertion that the state must supplant parents. Anticipating our era’s perfect storm, Swett asserted in his 1864 report to the state legislature that “the child should be taught to consider his instructor . . . superior to the parent in point of authority. . . . The vulgar impression that parents have a legal right to dictate to teachers is entirely erroneous. . . . Parents have no remedy as against the teacher.”

A string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the twentieth century—Meyer v. Nebraska, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, and Yoder v. Wisconsin—managed to rein in the totalitarian aspirations of the common-school enthusiasts. Alas, recent developments in California indicate that the spirits of Horace Mann and John Swett are once again ascendant.

Home schools are most vulnerable to the myth of “credentials”; in truth, public-school leaders privately despise parent educators for exposing the pretensions of professionalism in elementary-level teaching. Private religious schools are most vulnerable to “anti-discrimination statutes,” especially those mandating enrollment of the young in the sexual revolution. The predictable line of attack here will be on the schools’ tax-exempt status. It is safe to conclude that parents of a traditionalist bent face difficult times ahead.

The situation may be particularly acute for those homeschooling families in states—such as my Illinois—where claims of legality rest on court decisions from fifty or more years ago. Homeschooling in the 1940s was an odd and rare act, usually the consequence of a child’s sickness or disability. Today, the success of home schools driven by religious and cultural choices threatens the entire apparatus of compulsory state education. The modern partisans of the common schools will not rest until these embarrassing upstarts are crushed. Bolder political acts may be necessary to preserve fundamental parental rights.

Michael Farris, founder and chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, certainly thinks so. Foreseeing court action of the California sort, he is the leading advocate of a Parental Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This measure would declare that “[t]he liberty of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children is a fundamental right,” that federal or state governments may not “infringe upon this right” except for reasons “of the highest order,” and that “[n]o treaty nor any source of international law” might interfere with such rights (for more on the Amendment, visit Fully aware of the difficulties involved in winning passage of such an amendment, Farris nonetheless believes that it is the only realistic option left if basic parental rights are to survive this new century. He may be right.

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