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From the July/August, 2008 issue of Touchstone

 

Harboring Homeschoolers by Phillip E. Johnson

Harboring Homeschoolers

The record of Christian homeschooling has included many bright spots notwithstanding some ominous warnings that the legal status of homeschooling remains insecure, with powerful enemies looking for a rationale to treat homeschooled students as truants from compulsory formal schooling. On the bright side, I am accustomed to reading of homeschooled students who gain admission to top colleges, or win contests like spelling bees.

Accomplishment in competitive sports is something new. The online New York Times for March 16, 2008, carried an article titled “Growing Cheers for the Home-Schooled Team,” by Joe Drape, from Oklahoma City. At the top of the article was a charming photograph of determined-looking teenage girls holding hands as they prepared to start a basketball game. The caption read:

Taber Spani, one of the best high school girl basketball players in the nation, holds hands with two opponents as a coach reads a Bible verse. It is the way each game in the National Christian Homeschool Basketball Championships begins. The national tournament is a kind of jamboree around which families plan their vacations.

The article went on to explain that homeschool basketball has grown in a few years from little more than organized recess to a highly competitive activity, with a national tournament involving 300 boys’ and girls’ teams from 19 states, with logistics and financing provided by dedicated parents. It even boasts a few star athletes who are offered athletic scholarships to colleges and universities.

Many youngsters schooled at home in the primary grades choose to attend a regular high school because of the range of activities available there, including organized sports. But others choose to continue homeschooling through the high-school years, so they can remain close to their families and participate in the homeschool athletic contests. The article made that point by quoting one of the most gifted basketball players.

“We build friendships here with other girls who know what it’s like to be self-motivated and disciplined and to share your values,” said Spani, a high-school junior from Kansas. “I wouldn’t trade this tournament for anything.”

Homeschool Advantages

The article amounted to an impressive rebuttal to the most shopworn complaint against homeschooling: that youngsters educated at home will supposedly miss out on the social benefits of associating with their peers in a normal school. This complaint is based on an unsound premise. The homeschooling families I know pool their resources by forming associations to provide group activities or classes in such areas as languages, crafts, music, dance, and sports.

And homeschooling enables parents to protect their children from aspects of the public-school culture they consider toxic, including premature exposure to sexual temptation, because the children’s principal moral frame of reference is the family rather than the youth culture.

One of the great advantages of homeschooling in a healthy family is that, as children grow older, they learn to take on responsibilities as apprentice parents for their younger siblings, thus growing gradually and comparatively seamlessly into adult life without the jarring interruption of spending their adolescent years in junior high and high school. I have been impressed by the relative absence of adolescent rebelliousness in homeschooled families, which I attribute to children maturing gradually within the family, rather than being thrown into a public-school youth culture steeped in encouragements to rebellion.

Challenges & Competition

Not all homeschooling parents are Christians, and, inevitably, not all are good teachers, or even good parents. State intervention may be needed where there is outright abuse, but the kind of state regulation that aims to prevent all possibility of abuse would choke off a practice that is working very well for a great many families. There are entrenched interest groups in the educational establishment that would like to abolish homeschooling, less because of its occasional failures than because of its overall success, which raises the threat of competition in an educational culture devoted to monopoly.

The California public caught a glimpse of how easily legal action against an abuse can turn into something broader. In late February 2008 a California Court of Appeals published a decision that seemed at first intended to outlaw homeschooling altogether. A news report suggested that a county child welfare agency brought a case against two homeschooling parents after neighbors had accused them of abusing their children. If that was how the case began, the decision ought to have been limited to a case of child abuse, but instead, it seemed designed to undermine the legal basis of homeschooling as currently practiced.

In the absence of any statute governing homeschooling, California parents have sought to comply with compulsory school attendance laws by enrolling their children in a private school whose requirements can be met by schooling at home. The appellate opinion by Justice Walter Croskey first declared that parents have no constitutional right to school their children at home, then condemned the “ruse” of enrolling children in a private school with the intention of having them stay at home and be taught by a non-credentialed parent. The court then ruled that children must either be enrolled in a public or private school that requires daily attendance, or be taught at home but only by a parent who is a credentialed teacher.

I phoned a homeschooling father I know to warn him of this decision, but he was not worried. He told me that state education officials had reassured parents that they would allow homeschooling to continue as before until the decision could be appealed or modified by statute. It seems that public officials and legislators are loath to antagonize an army, or even a regiment, of mothers determined to protect their children. Their reluctance is all the greater because these officials know that many parents have good reasons for believing that homeschooling is the best alternative for their children.

In the end, there was so much public protest that no one was surprised when the appellate court agreed to reconsider its decision. I see that outcome as evidence that homeschooling in California has enough public support to weather a brief legal storm, but the defenders of required formal schooling and universal teacher credentialing are determined, so there may be more rough weather ahead.


Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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