Saturday, March 8, 2008

National and California home-schooling advocates are banding together to fight a state court ruling they say could essentially outlaw the practice of allowing parents to teach their children at home.

The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) and the Home School Association of California (HSC) say the court decision, which said home-schooling parents must have a valid state teaching license and they have no constitutional right to home-school, takes aim at the education programs many families use to get exemption from the public school system.

“We’re kind of in shock,” said Mike Smith, HSLDA president.

The Los Angeles-based case began when the county petitioned to have two home-schooled children enrolled in public or private school after an older sibling accused the father of abuse. A lower state court ruled against that idea, citing a constitutional right held by parents to educate their children at home. The appeals court disagreed and reversed that ruling.

“California courts have held that under provisions in the Education Code, parents do not have a constitutional right to educate their children in their own home,” said the Feb. 28 ruling by the California Appellate Court for the second district.

“It’s clear to us that enrollment and attendance in a public full-time day school is required by California law for minor children,” it stated, laying out the few exceptions to that rule, including if the child is enrolled in and attends a private full-time day school or if the child is tutored by a person holding a valid state teaching credential for the grade being taught.

The court said none of these exemptions apply to the case, in which the mother did not hold a teaching credential but taught her children at home through an extension, or independent study program, of Sunland Christian School, where the children were officially enrolled. The court said that setup doesn’t qualify as private school attendance or a credentialed tutor under state law.

But Mr. Smith said for years, California parents have been allowed to home-school their children under the private school exemption, either by establishing themselves as small private schools or using an extension program or independent study program of an existing private school.

The court ruling threatens these setups, he said, and could be used to require parents to get credentials. If it stands, Mr. Smith estimates it would only allow 10 percent of the current California home-schooling families to continue.

HSC estimates there are between 60,000 to 200,000 school-age children being home-schooled in California.

To earn a five-year preliminary teaching credential in California, an individual must complete a bachelor’s degree and take multiple exams.

Fred Glass, spokesman for the California Federation of Teachers, said requiring a child’s teacher to hold a state teaching credential is hardly a bad thing.

“It’s a matter of holding the standards high enough to ensure that children get a decent education,” he said. A credential doesn’t guarantee that, he said, but “it’s probably the best measure we have.”

The California Department of Education is still reviewing the ruling, said department spokeswoman Pam Slater. “We don’t know its reach,” she said.

Mr. Smith said no other states are attempting a similar move on home-schooling, but he said if the California ruling stands, other states may try to mimic it. State laws on home-schooling vary, though all allow it to some degree.

HSLDA lists six states as “high regulation” states that make it difficult for home-school parents, by requiring them to send the government notification or test scores, or other requirements. Mr. Smith said the court ruling would make California the worst.

According to the HSC, the family in this case “was not the one we would have picked for a home-school test case.” Still, the organization insisted the court got it wrong, and the decision, “means that all educational alternatives could be construed as illegal, from home-schooling to distance learning to [independent study programs].”

Debbie Schwarzer, an HSC volunteer, noted that the ruling could also be interpreted more narrowly, to apply only to the family in question, or to home-school families operating under an independent study program like Sunland Christian’s.

“Absolute confusion,” she said of the ruling. “None of us know.”

Mr. Smith said that as far as the credentialling issue goes, a credential doesn’t guarantee a better education. He said his group compared a group of home-schooling children whose parents had varying levels of education from high school only to a state teaching credential and found there was no appreciable difference in how they scored.

“Teacher certification doesn’t guarantee anything,” he said.

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