Teach Your Children Well: The First Rule of Any Civilized Society

Bad law can result in bad decisions. Californians found that out February 28 when the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that parents wishing to home school their children must have teaching credentials.

I don’t blame the court for this. The facts of the case were clear enough: two of the children had filed for declaratory relief, citing emotional and physical abuse by the father. That it was the intent of the parents to keep the children at home from school in order to conceal abuse was made evident in the father’s statement that he kept his children home because “educating children outside the home exposes them to ‘snitches.'”

Until now most people may have thought home schooling was an unalloyed right in California. It isn’t. Article IX, section 1 of California’s Constitution states: “A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the Legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement.” The State Legislature, to this end, passed the education code requiring parents to either send their children to private or public school, or home school them through one of the following three options: 1) establish themselves as a small, private school, 2) hire a credentialed tutor, or 3) enroll children in an independent study program run by an established school.

The children in the California case were enrolled in independent-study programs at Sunland Christian School in Los Angeles, California. The findings in the lower court trial were that all eight children in that family had been home schooled, solely by the mother, and the court opined that the quality of the education they received was “lousy,” “meager,” and “bad.”

The appellate court, seeking (and finding) justice for the children, ruled in about the only manner it could, given that it appeared before them not as a child welfare case, but as a home education case.

But the law is inadequate, and even though the court performed exactly as it should in this particular case, it was a bad result.

The uproar was immediate and vociferous, especially from the religious right, who saw this as a case of the state trying to destroy their right to raise their children as good Christians and lousy scientists. Every politician in the state vowed that something must be done! (Up to and including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger himself.) Their efforts weren’t for naught, as the court has since granted a rehearing of the case to be held in June.

I doubt anything good will come of it. When you combine a controversial decision based on a bad law with panicked politicians, what you usually end up with are even worse laws.

One of the big problems is that we really don’t know how good home schooling is. I’ve met people who were home schooled who were literate, curious, and who could do math and reading tests with ease. If they had strange views on biology and natural history, it probably didn’t matter if they were planning on becoming accountants or office managers or line workers. I once met a sixteen-year-old who had no idea who John F. Kennedy was and thought the United States had half a dozen states, of which he could name four. The father was a paranoid schizophrenic who thought that if the boy went to public school, the state would be able to instill mind control. The kid was a whiz at taking apart ten-year-old computers and bicycles and putting them back together again, but that was about it. His future didn’t look particularly bright. That’s the down side of home schooling.

What we do know is that the quality varies wildly, and that it sometimes is used to conceal physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Often religious considerations are cited by parents as their reason for home schooling. (“I have sincerely held religious beliefs,” the father in the California case told the Los Angeles Times. “Public schools conflict with that.”)

The problem is parents aren’t the only ones with rights. Children have a right to a decent quality education, one that will allow them to function in our complex and technological society. They also have the right to be outside the home and meet other children and develop social skills.

The problem with the court’s decision is that under “No Child Left Behind” a teacher must be credentialed in the primary subjects taught, and for very small schools and home school, this would mean seven or eight credentials–all of which require college courses–in order to provide a well-rounded education. This puts the ability to teach by California standards out of reach for most people in the state.

In short, the ruling imposes an undue burden on people who, in good faith, want to home school their children. It needs to be changed. Children’s rights need to be protected too.

As it stands, children in public schools have to take proficiency tests each year in order to show that they are, in fact, learning. (“Is our children learning?” as that good example of private schooling, George W. Bush, once said.) This should be applied to all children–those in public schools, those in private schools, and those who are being taught at home.

For years, private schools claimed to have better results than public schools, but it never was a fair claim because, among other things, the test taking was self-selecting on the private side. A poor private school could opt out. (Even with that intrinsic advantage for the private schools, it turned out that for students of the same socio-economic status, there were no academic differences between either type of schooling). And of course home schooling has never been subject to testing.

The answer: Test all the kids, and make sure none of them are being cheated out of their birthright.

Second, have parents submit a yearly course outline/curriculum. If they can’t manage that, they shouldn’t be trying to educate their kids.

Third, make it easy for children to opt out of home schooling–the older the child, the easier it becomes. Any twelve-year-old who wants to go to public school should be allowed to do so, regardless of the parent’s wishes.

Finally, treat cases like the one the California court just ruled on as child welfare cases, rather than as educational issues. It sounds like the court had standing to order the children removed if the home was found to be abusive, and that’s what should have been done.

Just because parents don’t have some certain college courses doesn’t mean they can’t teach their children. But similarly, just because God came to them and told them to avoid the sins of the secular world doesn’t mean that children can be kept in a cave.

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