Sunday, November 27, 2005

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco recently issued a wake-up call to parents in the case of Fields v. Palmdale School District. Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for the court, ruled that though parents have a fundamental right to decide whether to send their child to a public school, they do not have a general right to direct how the school teaches their child.

The case before the court that led to this ruling centered on a survey that asked several public schoolchildren invasive questions about sex. The parents argued that the school should not have allowed their children to be asked these questions.

The parents, however, had given their consent by signing a form that included the following statement provided by the school district: “I understand answering questions may make my child feel uncomfortable. If this occurs, then … the research study coordinator, will assist us in locating a therapist for further psychological help if necessary.”

If the nature of the questions that were to be asked could lead a child to seek psychological help, this should have raised a red flag with the parents.

Despite the presence of a consent form, however, many people agree that public schools should not usurp the authority of parents, especially if the subject is controversial. In addition, many people believe that if you choose to send your child to public school, it’s reasonable to expect the school to act as a partner rather than as a parent.

In fact, 320 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sided with the parents when they passed a resolution urging the entire 9th Circuit to rehear the case. Unfortunately, there is legal precedent to support Judge Reinhardt’s opinion. These decisions slowly have eroded parents’ constitutional right to control the education of their own children once they have handed over the children to the public school.

The 9th Circuit explained that the legitimate function of public school exceeds simply teaching academic courses to students. Judge Reinhardt concluded that the U.S. Supreme Court has said: “Education serves higher civic and social functions, including the rearing of children into healthy, productive and responsible adults and the cultivation of talented and qualified leaders of diverse backgrounds” Grutter v. Bolinger, 539 US 306 (2003).

Citing precedent from other courts, Judge Reinhardt ruled that parents of public school students do not have a fundamental right to object to a public school uniform policy or a community service requirement for high school students or to have their children exempted from certain reading programs the parents find objectionable or from an assembly program that includes sexually explicit topics.

These opinions show that when conflicts arise, the trend in the courts is to side with school officials rather than parents. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem. How could a school operate if every administrative detail was challenged successfully by parents? A school could not function in this type of environment.

A better way to view public schools is to see them as a benefit provided by the state. Because the state is providing a benefit, it is able to set the rules. Of course, the result is that public schools inevitably act as parents.

Judge Reinhardt was very clear, and parents across the nation should be aware that in the current legal climate, they are sacrificing almost all their parental authority when they send their children to public school.

Fortunately, there is an alternative for parents who do not want to compete with public schools or the courts for the authority to educate their own children. Hundreds of thousands of parents have decided to home-school.

When you home-school, you have control of the curriculum, and you are the final authority. The responsibility for educating and raising your children is not delegated to the state, which may act in ways you do not support. As the parents in Fields v. Palmdale discovered, they are the ones who have to live with the consequences of what their children are exposed to at school.

The moral of the story is: “There is no place like home” when it comes to education. Home-schooling is the best choice for parents who wish to remain the principal figures in the upbringing of their children.

Michael Smith is the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association. He may be contacted at 540/338-5600; or send e-mail to

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