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Courts Asked To Resolve Home-Schooling Disputes

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As disagreements flare in communities nationwide over the content and quality of public-school curricula, courts and state legislatures are increasingly being asked to define--or limit--the right of parents to sidestep formal education altogether by teaching their children at home.

Rulings by state district courts thus far have been mixed, but higher state courts have often been sympathetic to the argument that home schooling must be regulated to some extent.

State supreme courts in Kansas and Maine ruled unanimously this month that parents may be prohibited from educating their children at home in unauthorized instructional programs. The courts affirmed the rights of states and school districts to monitor home-education programs to ensure that children receive adequate instruction.

But in October, the Georgia Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, had come to a different conclusion, ruling in favor of parents who had established a home-education program. The court struck down the state's compulsory-education law, ruling that the law was "impermis-sibly vague" and in violation of the Due-Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. As a result of the case, Roemhild v. State of Georgia, Gov. Joe Frank Harris and the General Assembly will consider new legislation that may result in a more clearly defined statute, according to state education officials. (See Education Week, Nov. 9, 1983.)

Few federal courts have been asked to rule on the constitutionality of state requirements. (In one such case, Duro v. District Attorney, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled last summer that North Carolina's interest in the education of its citizens outweighs the religious interests of parents who elect to teach their children at home.)

About 35 states have passed laws that provide some authorization for home instruction; 23 states require that parents provide their children with instruction "equivalent" or "substantially equivalent" to that given in the public schools. Fourteen states also require that the person teaching a child out of school be certified by the state as a teacher or private tutor, according to 1981 data from the Education Commission of the States.

No one knows exactly how many parents are involved in home schooling, primarily because most such families prefer to keep a low profile, researchers say.

According to John Holt, the former public-school teacher who is the movement's most widely recognized spokesman, between 10,000 and 20,000 families are involved in home schooling in the United States.

The home-schooling movement, Mr. Holt said, has been gaining support from a growing number of "do-it-yourselfers," who build their own homes and raise their own food, and from parents who advocate "natural'' living arrangements and "who are increasingly able to adjust their lives and work schedules to be at home with their children." This group, Mr. Holt said, is "more strongly bonded to their children than was customary years ago."

Mr. Holt, who publishes the newsletter Growing Without Schooling, said the home-schooling movement has also attracted parents of gifted and talented children who feel the schools do not offer enough for them, as well as parents who feel "a general dissatisfaction" with schools. In this group, Mr. Holt said, many are former teachers. The largest group of home-schooling advocates are fundamentalist Christians, he said.

Some home schoolers would seek to abolish all government-supported education, Mr. Holt noted. "They don't think the government ought to be in the school business at all. The rich have a range of choices but the middle class and poor only have one choice--public schools. They don't understand why they should pay taxes to support programs that do not give their children the kind of schooling they want."

But most home-schooling advocates "do not want to fuss with the public schools," he added. Their attitude is, "I won't bother them if they don't bother me."

Among the recent home-schooling developments nationwide:

In Kansas, the state supreme court this month unanimously upheld a lower court's ruling that two children in Spring Hill were not being properly educated at home.

The children, Anna and Matthew Sawyer, attended Spring Hill Elementary School until the end of the 1981-82 school year, but were removed for about five months in the fall of 1982.

In January, Associate District Judge Bill E. Haynes of the Johnson County Court ordered that the children be re-enrolled at the Spring Hill elementary school. The judge rejected the parents' claim that their home was an unaccredited private school named the Longview School.

In its Dec. 2 decision, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld Judge Haynes's ruling, finding that although courses taught at the Sawyer home were those required by law, teaching time varied and school was in session usually only half a day. Moreover, the court said, the children's mother was not trained as a teacher and there was little lesson planning, no testing, and no scheduling.

The court held that the Sawyers' educational plan for their children "though well-intentioned" was "a thinly veiled subterfuge attacking compulsory school attendance."

Christopher C. Iliff, a Kansas City, Mo., lawyer who represented the Sawyers, said the court's decision "did not give much weight" to key facts in the case, such as the fact that Matthew Sawyer's academic performance in the public school had plummeted during the previous three years. His scores on a commonly used assessment test fell from the 47th percentile to the 16th percentile during that time, the lawyer said.

In Maine, the state supreme court held in a unanimous decision earlier this month that a Bradford couple could not teach their children at home unless the education program they provided was approved by the state department of education.

The case began in August 1982 when officials at School Administrative District 64 discovered that three of the McDonough's school-age children were not enrolled in school. The McDonoughs, who refused to submit a home-education plan to the department of education, had claimed that they had a constitutional right to teach their children at home without government interference.

"We find that the requirement that parents seek the approval of school authorities for home-education plans is fully justified by the state's 'high responsibility for education of its citizens,"' the court said.

"Furthermore, many parents, even though they have a sincere desire to educate their children at home, lack the necessary training and facilities to do so," Justice Vincent L. McKusick said.

Until the parents "obtain approval for a home-education program or qualify for some other statutory exception, they are required by law to keep their children enrolled in public school," the court ruled.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals this month reversed a lower-court decision that allowed a Harnett County, N.C., couple to educate their children at home because of their religious beliefs.

In a ruling handed down Dec. 6, the court of appeals said the state had an "overriding interest" in compulsory education for children.

One-room School

In the case, Larry Delconte contended that, according to his interpretation of the Bible, parents are responsible for educating their children at home. Putting that belief into effect, the Delcontes had set up a one-room school in their home, where they taught their two school-age and two younger children. The family is affiliated with a fundamentalist Christian group.

Previously, the Delcontes lived in New York, where they taught their children at home after receiving permission from a local school board. They continued the practice after moving to North Carolina.

The decision will be appealed with the North Carolina Supreme Court, according to Thomas E. Strickland, attorney for the Delcontes.

In Virginia, the state's Joint Legislative Subcommittee Studying Home Education is putting the finishing touches on a bill--likely to be introduced in January--that would allow parents to instruct their children at home as a means of satisfying the state's compulsory school-attendance laws.

The bill recognizes home-education programs as distinct from private parochial and nonparochial schools. The bill, which was being drafted last week and which state officials say does not stand much chance of approval, would require that a parent who elects to provide home instruction in lieu of school attendance must have either a baccalaureate degree or teacher certification, or must enroll students in a correspondence course approved by a nationally recognized group such as the National Home-Study Council. The bill would also require parents to file written requests and reports with public-school officials, and to have their children take standardized tests to monitor their progress.

In Michigan, an Alpena County Probate Court judge ruled this month that the state's compulsory-education law prohibits a Hubbard Lake family from educating their children at home.

Probate Judge Douglas Pugh ordered that the six children of Jerry and Camilla Wilke be made temporary wards of the court. The Wilkes, who are Seventh Day Adventists, had argued that their First Amendment rights would be violated if their six sons were forced to attend public school.

Judge Pugh was to decide last week exactly what would be done with the children.

In Idaho, an increasing number of parents who have not filed information about their home-schooling programs with school districts are being prosecuted for encouraging truancy, according to the Bonneville County prosecutor, Kimball W. Mason.

The number of families providing home instruction has not increased dramatically, but the number of legal cases has, he said. "Local boards have taken renewed interest" in asserting their authority to monitor the programs," he said.

On Nov. 30, Mr. Mason charged six pupils with truancy because their parents had refused to answer a questionnaire sent to them by the local school board. The board was attempting to assess the qualification of teachers and the adequacy of facilities and curricula in the home-school programs, as required by state law.

"One of the families refused to comply because it said that the questionnaires violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. Others said nothing or simply refused to accept the letters," Mr. Mason said.

Eliminate Confusion

He said parents have contested the truancy charges in the magistrate division of Idaho's Seventh Judicial District Court. No date has yet been set for a hearing.

To eliminate some of the confusion surrounding statutes providing for home education, the Idaho attorney general in September wrote a widely disseminated opinion that said the state has the authority to see to it that children are in programs that meet minimal standards. If parents or groups of parents incorporate a program as a private or home school, they are not shielded from state regulation, explained Bradley H. Hall, Idaho's deputy attorney general for education.

About 200 families in Nebraska have formed an association of par-ents who teach their children at home, according to the group's chairman, Warren Rushton.

Mr. Rushton, a Columbus, Neb., resident who said that he and his wife teach their three daughters at home in unapproved programs, said that the Nebraska Christian Home Association would offer aid to couples facing prosecution. The association, which charges annual dues of $15, is working to raise $25,000 for legal support.

According to David C. Rasmussen, attorney for the Nebraska Department of Education, there are ways in which home schools are allowed to operate in Nebraska. "A program with a certified teacher and approval of the state department of education can operate as a private school. There are a number of schools--all of which are elementary schools--with one or two kids and their mother as a teacher," Mr. Rasmussen said.

One or two home-school cases are being considered by the state supreme court now that appear to be similar to a case, Nebraska v. Bigelow, that the state supreme court decided in May, Mr. Rasmussen said.

The court held that a home-school program involving a mother with an 8th-grade education and no certified teacher was not providing an adequate education for the child involved.

Correspondents Raymond Lowery and Jack Kennedy contributed to this report.

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