Knee-jerk reactions ignore key home-school questions

The knee-jerk uproar that’s followed a state Court of Appeals
decision to require credentialed teachers for every schoolchild in
California
– including those in home schooling – was fully predictable, but
ignored some vital questions.
The knee-jerk uproar that’s followed a state Court of Appeals decision to require credentialed teachers for every schoolchild in California – including those in home schooling – was fully predictable, but ignored some vital questions.

The ruling essentially means that every child in the state must attend an accredited school, public or private, or be taught at home – or at least be supervised -  by a credentialed teacher, something that many take as a threat to most home schooling. Every objection coming from newspaper editorialists and politicians from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger down focuses on the rights of parents to provide whatever education they like for their children.

“Every California child deserves a quality education and parents should have the right to decide what’s best for their children,” the governor said. “Parents should not be penalized for acting in the best interests of their children’s education.” He called the court ruling “outrageous” and predicted it will be quickly overturned by the state Supreme Court.     

Newspapers followed with lines like this: “(Parents) should continue to exercise guardianship in terms of where and how their minor children are educated.” But pause for a moment and substitute the word “nourishment” for “education” in all this. Do parents have the right to provide as much or as little nourishment for their children as they like? If they don’t provide adequate nourishment, don’t they at some point become guilty of child abuse?

These questions lead to another: What about the rights of children to a quality education? Sure, many of the approximately 175,000 home-schooled California kids do get quality instruction from their parents. But what about children whose parents speak little English? What about those whose parents have less than a high school education of their own? How can they possibly be getting quality education in these circumstances?

Yet, there is nothing in current practice to prevent totally unqualified parents from taking over the education of their children. And there is little to assure that even teaching by parents with college degrees will cover all the ground required for a solid education. That’s because the state Department of Education has long winked at home schooling regulations that call for parents to file course-of-study plans with charter schools, accredited private schools or public school districts. Enforcement of those rules has been lax both by the state and by the school programs where many parents have signed up. Plus, an unknown number – estimated in the tens of thousands – of children are home schooled without the knowledge of any authority.

It’s a system loved by those who facilitate home schooling today. “This works so well, I don’t see any reason to change it,” J. Michael Smith, president of the national Home School Legal Defense Assn., told one reporter. The problem is that no one really knows whether it works well, regardless of what Smith says. The current reality is that there are few controls on home schooling. This means there can be well-publicized success stories where home-schooled children perform spectacularly on standardized tests and win admission to the finest universities. It also means there can be abject failures where children get little or no education. And everything in between.

Without either close supervision or the presence of a qualified instructor – read “credentialed teacher” – no one even knows how many of the home schooled have a chance to become success stories and how many will be doomed to unskilled labor for life. The strongest objections to the appeals court decision, of course, have come from religious groups that dislike many ideas taught in public schools and most private ones: Things like evolution and racial, religious and gender equality.

One legitimate question about children home-taught in programs like these is how they will eventually interact and compete with contemporaries who have had more standard educations. It’s unknown right now how well most will cope, in part because home schooling has only taken off as an openly acknowledged mass movement within the last 15 years.

The very vocal knee-jerk reactions against the appellate court decision, written by a judge appointed by Republican ex-Gov. George Deukmejian – the most conservative California governor of the last 30 years – have not considered any of those questions.

And despite Schwarzenegger’s demand for a quick overturning of the ruling, there’s every reason for state Supreme Court justices to consider all of these issues and more before making any binding and permanent decision.

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