Recently the Second District Court of Appeal ruled that parents have no constitutional right to educate their children at home without state certification. In his written opinion, Justice H. Walter Croskey cited a long series of rulings indicating that the parental right to educate their own children is not absolute under American constitutional law. But the court’s ruling raises the serious question of whether it is good public policy for the State of California to insist that all children be educated by people who have a teaching credential. The most lucid arguments favor the position that homeschooling should be at least a permissible option, possibly even encouraged by the state.
On one level, the conflict is about the state control and regulation of education. At a deeper level, the homeschooling battle is one front in a much larger conflict over who controls the future, through access to children.
So what objections do critics have against homeschooling?
First, let’s dispose of the child abuse argument. This particular ruling came as a response to alleged child abuse in a homeschooling family. Homeschool opponents claim that permitting homeschooling increases child abuse. But let’s be clear--child abuse is already illegal. Requiring home educating parents to have a teaching credential will do nothing to prevent child abuse. Besides, children get abused at school, as well as at home. A Congressional study estimates that around 9% of American public school children are subject to sexual misconduct by a school employee sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade.
Second objection: home schooling is educationally inadequate. In reality, the vast majority of homeschooled children do better than public school attendees. When so many children educated in public schools are unable to pass the high school exit exam mandated by the State of California, the claim that homeschooling is inadequate is not a serious argument.
Third objection: Local schools are paid by the state on the basis of attendance. But the State of California is struggling financially. K-12 education is facing proposed budget cuts of $4.4 billion. (SD Union Tribune March 6, 2008). It is reasonable to believe that homeschooling is a net benefit to the state budget. Homeschooling parents pay their taxes, but do not use the services of the public schools. If the ruling holds and these kids are forced back into public schools, the cost will be immense. This scenario would be a budgetary and logistical nightmare, a bloodletting of state expenditures and good-will. Jack O’Connell, the California State Superintendent of Public Instruction– the equivalent of a department of education–now faces the potential crisis of dealing with tens of thousands of “truants.” O’Connell says he honestly doesn’t know what will happen next, adding that his department is reviewing the case, and “there is some angst in the field.” Somehow, it hardly seems like a good use of scarce state resources to be barging in on families educating their children around the kitchen table, and dragging them off to over-crowded, under-performing, under-funded taxpayer supported schools.
Perhaps this California homeschool dispute represents a larger conflict over the future of society. Whose children are these, anyway? One point of view is that children are gifts from God, given in trust to their parents who have the natural right to educate them. Many homeschooling parents view themselves as stewards.
The competing point of view is that children belong to society, which grants parents the right to care for them. The rights of parents are limited by the interests of the state. In a recent German homeschooling case, the European court held that parents may not refuse a state-provided education.
In his book A Nation of Bastards McGill University Professor Douglas Farrow argues that the competition for the control of children will only increase as children become more scarce. Reproductive decisions tend to be correlated with political preferences: traditionalists tend to have more children than progressives. Traditionalists tend to favor parental education, while progressives tend to favor state education. As the birthrate drops, the conflict over education can only become more intense.
This fight over homeschooling in California may be a harbinger of battles ahead.