The Right to Homeschool

The Amish are a convenient group to have around. They are, by their very nature, non-threatening . The Amish are a small, pacifist religous denomination that generally wishes to be left alone to practice their simple lifestyle as dictated by their religious beliefs. Sometimes restrictions on religious practices as imposed by the state are born out of a fear of unconventional religious groups. Without this fear, the dispensation granted the Amish under the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment can be applied to all religious groups.

In 1972, the Supreme Court in Wisconsin v. Yoder ruled that the Amish could pull their children from public schools after the age of 14 and continue their vocational education at home despite Wisconsin law requiring school attendance untill 16. The Court conceded that the state retains a legitimate interest insuring that children are appropriately educated. However, this interest must be balanced against, “fundamental rights, such as those specifically protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the traditional interest of parents with respect to the religious upbringing of their children.”

The Amish had demonstrated in the court record that the Wisconsin requirement conflicted with the Amish’s religious precepts and that the exercise of these rights would not “not impair the physical or mental health of the child, or result in an inability to be self-supporting or to discharge the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, or in any other way materially detract from the welfare of society.” In essence, given a conflict between religious practice and state regulation, reasonable accommodation should be made for religious practice.

We are now face with a new case in California involving homeschooling. According a State Court of Appeal, students must be enrolled in public schools “unless (1) the child is enrolled in a private full-time day school and actually attends that private school, (2) the child is tutored by a person holding a valid state teaching credential for the grade being taught.” Hence, interested parents who are not credentialed do not have the right to educate their children at home.

The facts of this case are somewhat different from the Wisconsin v. Yoder case. There is no specific religious group being discriminated against, but it is clear that one of the primary motivations of many homeschoolers is to raise children with values not always encouraged in public schools. To be consisten with Wisconsin v. Yoder, it would seem that the free exercise clause would protect homeschooling parents. Of course, the state as explained in Wisconsin v. Yoder does have a real interest in insuring that students adequately educated,, and the quality of teachers is certainly relevant to this question. However, empirical evidence shows that homeschooled students perform better than their public school counterparts. Hence, the real state interest appears to be to maintain the public school monopoly rather than the proper education of children.

It is not likely that this particular case will stand further legal scrutiny. After all, California Courts are notorious for getting it wrong. Moreover, the politics works in favor of homeschoolers. Even the majority of parents who elect to send their children to public schools, do not appreciate being told that they do not have discretion on how to educate their children.

Attuned to this popular sentiment, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that “Parents should not be penalized for acting in the best interests of their children’s education… This outrageous ruling must be overturned by the courts, and if the courts don’t protect parents’ rights then, as elected officials, we will.” California could simply change the law to specifically allow homeschooling by parents.

The National Education Association and other lobbyists on behalf of the public school monopolies would be best not to fight the political inclination to allow home schooling. Homeschooling is always going to be the choice of only a small minority. It takes too much sacrifice on the part of modern families for homeschooling to seriously affect public school attendance. However, making too much of issue of this will cause unflattering attention to be paid to how poorly public schools do in comparison to parental amateurs.

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