Why so cruel to home school?

Liam Julian

A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, tells us that California's Second District Court of Appeal was correct to rule last week that parents without teaching credentials cannot educate their children at home--i.e., that most of the 166,000-odd home-schooled students in the Golden State could be truants and their parents may be violating the law.

Duffy missed a fine opportunity to keep quiet when he said, "What's best for a child is to be taught by a credentialed teacher." This echoes other union honchos and even former California Superintendent for Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, who wrote in 2002 that all schooling in her state needed to be supervised by professionally trained teachers. Furthermore, Eastin noted, "Home schools are not even subject to competition from private schools, where the marketplace would presumably ensure some level of quality and innovation."

Such statements are derisible. Los Angeles Unified school district enrolls some 700,000 students taught by the credentialed teachers  that Duffy represents, and a mere 33 percent of those pupils are proficient on reading tests, only 38 percent hit that mark on basic tests of math, and 56 percent never graduate. What's best for a child, it seems, has little or nothing to do with the credentials Duffy cherishes.

Furthermore, it strikes one as particularly noxious when the head of a big-city teachers' union, the members of which are failing to educate a stunning amount of their charges, advocates for a court decision that could pull young ones away from their parents and homes and force them into public schools that may be horrendous. Duffy--whose motivations for pushing more students into L.A.'s classrooms may be laudable, but also may stem from a desire to swell the public-school-pupil ranks and perforce force the district to hire more dues-paying teachers--really ought not lecture parents about "what's best" for their own children.

Eastin's ideas are less distasteful than Duffy's but just as brazen. To complain that home schools are not "subject to competition" is 1) wrong and 2) quite rich coming from a former higher-up of a state-run, public-school bureaucracy that actively tries to eliminate competition that might entice families away from it.

The specifics of the court case in question are these. The eldest of Phillip and Mary Long's eight children reported the father as physically and emotionally abusive. All eight children were hitherto home schooled. An attorney representing the two youngest siblings asked a juvenile court to order that they be enrolled in a public or private school where teachers could monitor them daily. The lower court declined to issue such an order, noting that California parents have a right to home school their children. The Second District Court of Appeal disagreed.

It found that People v. Turner (1953) mandated that California parents have either to send their children to a full-time private school or a full-time public school, or they must have them educated by a credentialed tutor. Turner, wrote Justice H. Walter Croskey in his decision for the appellate court, "specifically rejected the argument that it is unconstitutional to require that parents possess the [teaching] qualifications prescribed by statute."

The California statutes prescribe not that private-school teachers possess such qualifications, though, but only that they be "persons capable of teaching." Turner, however, sees no contradiction here, where one plainly exists. Why not? Apparently it's a question of oversight. It is unreasonable for the state to monitor individual parents who home-school their children, Turner maintains, but far less so for it to monitor private-school instruction. This logic suggests that California's government surveils--or at least, that it could surveil--its multitude of private schools, which the state neither does nor could possibly hope to do. But no matter.

Then there's this gem, from Turner: Private-school teachers need not possess educational credentials because they'll be overseen by managers who, motivated by the desire to run a successful school, will brook no incompetence from the teachers they lead. Parents, one must presume from this reasoning, are less motivated to ensure that their own children receive a solid education than are anonymous private- or public-school principals. By affirming this goofy logic, Croskey upholds the thinking of Duffy--that parents are incapable of doing right by their kids.

Of course, the parents involved in the case at issue, Phillip and Mary Long, may well be incapable of doing right by their kids, and the evidence suggests that they are. This is an aberration, however, especially in the home-school community, which is reportedly a redoubt of parents who are so concerned about their children's wellbeing that they devote substantial time and energy to teaching class in their kitchens.

Some adults abuse their children. It's awful, but it's not a compelling argument for criminalizing home schooling. Limiting parents' ability to home school in order to combat child abuse is a crude solution for a more specific problem. It is also, perhaps, not much of a crude solution: the high rates of truancy in many public schools; the anonymity that can pervade at some of the larger, more impersonal ones; and the migration of students between states and cities and classrooms render it such that abusive parents may very well be just as abusive for just as long regardless of whether their child attends the local school or stays at home. Lots of newspaper stories illustrate this. Lots of newspaper stories also suggest that students have a greater chance of being abused at school than at home--in fact, that's precisely why many parents home school in the first place.

To force happily home-schooled pupils into public-school classrooms simply to keep watch over them, to ensure they're not abused, is a poor idea. And it will surely condemn sundry youngsters to a lesser education than they would receive from Mom and Dad. The goal of public schools is to teach students. It is not to manage every facet of pupils' lives or their parents' lives, or to look after their general well-being--all of which schools are ill-equipped to handle competently.

The appellate court's findings may not be overturned. Regardless of what the state DOE maintains, Californians currently have no explicit state or federal constitutional "right" to home school their children (such rights have usually been assumed to occupy various "penumbras" of constitutional language). Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to push through legislation clarifying this muddle. Some 30-odd states have already done so, and California shouldn't hesitate to join them.

This piece originally ran in slightly different form on National Review Online on March 12th.

More By Author