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"The World Upside Down," Jan Steen (1663)

Building Backlash
Homeschool Confidential

Phillip and Mary Long live in a Los Angeles neighborhood and home school their eight children for various reasons. They don’t like the policies of the school system. Their religious beliefs compel them to home school. More recently, Phillip thought his children would be exposed to “snitches” if they went to school. Anyway, the Longs caught the attention of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services when some of their children kept turning up in abuse cases.

An attorney representing the two youngest children tried to enroll them in a school by court order. The court agreed that the schooling the children were receiving at home was “lousy,” “meager” and “bad,” that they were overly isolated and should be in a setting where people could provide help if they needed it. But constitutionally, the court said, the Longs had a right to home school. There would be no forced enrollment. The lawyer pressed on. On Feb. 28, an appeals court handed down this stunner: “Parents do not have a constitutional right to home school their children.” They may do so on only two conditions: “The child is tutored by a person holding a valid state teaching credential for the grade being taught” (and the child must be taught at least three hours a day, and only between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. No joke). Or a few narrow exemptions apply such as, not surprisingly, for child actors.

Good thing my wife and I aren’t living in California. We’ve been home-schooling our 8 th grader for the past two years. Her school day most mornings begins before 7, which would put us out of compliance right there. None of us is certified in so much as alphabet soup. None of us has credentials in adequately dealing with the out-of-body experience known as adolescence. I don’t think we’ve ever tutored her for three hours in any given week, let alone in a single day. Her tutors tend to be whatever authors we have on our bookshelves. We set our expectations a few bookstacks above where they were in public school (which is why we pulled her). Then we deal with the results.

Florida is among the 19 states that moderately regulate home-schooling, so once a year our daughter sits for standardized tests. We send the school district her results, which in English went from average to top-ranked her first year at home. We can’t wait to send her back to public school for 9 th grade in fall. Home-schooling is slightly maddening for parents and children. But we’re glad we had the freedom to ensure she was receiving the education we thought she should in her critical middle-school years.

Anecdotally, home-schooled students perform considerably better than public-school students. Florida has confirming evidence. FCAT reading scores of 6 th, 7 th and 8 th grade students enrolled in the state’s virtual school system (a free online curriculum for home-schoolers, in which we’ve participated) not only beat the state average but all 67 school districts’ mean scores. In math their mean score beats more than 90 percent of counties’ mean scores. The lesson seems to be that in home-schooling—as in any kind of schooling—it shouldn’t be a question of methods, credentials or even curriculums but intellectual and social achievement. If the child does well academically and isn’t entirely deranged socially, no rule should keep that child from being home-schooled. If anything, public schools, whose institutional rigidities often feel like cuckoos’ nests worth flying over anyway, might learn from the less-structured successes of home.

The California court decision was disturbing for a couple of reasons. It’s the first time in legal memory that a court made home-schooling so conditional. And California court decisions are a bellwether of national legal trends. A study published in the latest issue of the University of California-Davis Law Review shows California’s highest court’s decisions being followed by other states at a rate almost three times higher than any other state’s courts. The home- schooling case hasn’t yet reached the California Supreme Court, which is unlikely to uphold the Feb. 28 decision. The state school superintendent has been busy telling parents not to worry: No school police are about to force home-schooled students back to school.

But the appellate court’s reasoning is a warning to the home-school movement, suggesting state regulations and intrusions may be next. The movement has been growing exponentially (30 percent between 1999 and 2003, to 1.1 million students nationwide), not always for the right reasons. Disassociating from one’s community or fearing a secular environment is not, in my view, as good a reason to home school as seeking higher academic standards. But that’s irrelevant so long as parental choice isn’t trumped by government presumption, overbearing enough as it is, on how to educate children.

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