Defense of Home Instruction 'Not Warranted'

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In her Commentary on home instruction, Patricia M. Lines described the practice as a popular, respectable, successful, and, on balance, legally sound alternative to traditional schooling. Ms. Lines accused law-enforcement authorities in the "few states [that] do not expressly allow home instruction" of prosecuting home-schooling cases much more frequently than they do classic truancy cases, and she argued that states should seek ways to promote rather than deter home instruction. (See "States Should Help, Not Hinder, Parents' Home-Schooling Efforts,'' Education Week, May 15, 1985.)

Ms. Lines's educational and legal conclusions are not sufficiently warranted. Her assertion that "[proportionately] more children are failing academically in public school than at home" is based on skewed and sketchy evidence.

To support her argument, she relies partly on an isolated example of notable success--a young man who was admitted to Harvard University after being educated entirely at home. The example is not very compelling. Was this student extremely bright and motivated to begin with? And suppose I were to cite a single outstanding young man who had been educated entirely in the public schools. Could I then reasonably conclude that the public schools are working well?

For broader evidence, Ms. Lines relies on above-average standardized-test results from two states that test home-instructed children--Alaska and Arizona. One need not be a sophisticated researcher to have serious questions about her reliance on these results. For example, is there any evidence that the home-instructed students were representative of the student population in these two states? What were the relative proportions of "at risk" and handicapped children? How does the average performance of the school-instructed students in these two states compare with national norms? Given the nature and scope of the "available evidence," a more cautious conclusion was clearly warranted.

Ms. Lines's educational analysis is also unfairly loaded in her use of terms and numbers. For example, using the term "home schooling" seems to suggest that home instruction fits within the meaning of "school"--a very real issue that has been answered "no" in more than half the reported court cases in which it has arisen.

Similarly making a bandwagon pitch by implication, Ms. Lines reports that "50,000 children are being instructed at home today" (including 5,000 in states where home instruction is either illegal or supposedly overregulated). She provides no source for these estimates. Three years ago, in another report, she said the total number was between 10,000 and 30,000. Neither the original estimate nor the dramatic purported increase is sufficiently explained.

Such numbers are subject to the inflationary effects of wishful thinking, or at least artful advocacy. In a current home-schooling court case in Texas--a state without an explicit exemption for home instruction--the plaintiffs claim that 10,000 to 15,000 Texas parents are instructing their children at home. (This is two to three times Ms. Lines's figure for all such states.) There is, however, no solid evidence for any of these figures.

Ms. Lines says that only "a few" states do not allow home instruction. Actually, only about 18 states expressly allow it. The clear majority do not. Eleven states provide no exception to their laws requiring children to attend public or private schools. Twenty states only have "implicit" exceptions.

Ms. Lines makes the point that states that do not expressly allow home instruction are prosecuting parents who instruct their children at home. Then, inexplicably, she draws a cause-and-effect link to a separate point. She says there is much more legal enforcement against parents of home-educated children than against those of dropouts and truants. Both statements may be true, but to reason, as Ms. Lines appears to, that A causes B is specious at best.

In addition, Ms. Lines artfully switches the direction of the prevailing legal presumption that the party challenging the administrative agency generally has the burden of proof. Her reasoning goes something like this: If the government cannot prove that public schooling is superior to home instruction, then the courts should allow instruction.

To support her contention that one method is as good as the other, she defends religious home-instruction materials, such as the "Packet on Accelerated Christian Education" (PACE): "... it is difficult to say that children will not learn from these materials." True; but it is difficult to say that children will not learn from most published instructional materials. The question is: How well will they learn? More important, her focus on materials leaves out several other critical factors in the process of schooling--teacher quality, instructional time, subject matter, etc.

Regarding teacher quality, she states: "A few states require ... that a parent be a certified teacher, even though there is no evidence that a noncertified person cannot do as good a job as a home instructor." If the burden of proof is on the state to show that noncertified people cannot do as good a job as certified teachers, why do courts generally sustain certification requirements for public schools and for home programs? The answer is simple: because the presumption is generally in favor of the state, with the burden of proof on the parents.

Thus, the question here should be: What evidence is there that a noncertified person can do a job comparable to that of the schools? In the case of parents who do not have the education, the time, and the support services of public schools--to say nothing of their ability to provide the socializing experiences of schools--the answer is quite clear.

The Virginia State Board of Education summed it up nicely in an advisory opinion it produced for the state legislature on this issue:

"It is reasonable for the General Assembly to conclude that education is provided to a greater extent in an environment where discipline and control is more objective [than in the home environment], where a program and progress of study are verifiable, where the teacher has a singular role as teacher, where the student has a singular role as student, and where the exclusive focus and reason for meeting is the educational program."

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Ms. Lines's argument, however, is her distorted description of existing case law. Pointing to the parents' free exercise of religion, she concludes that "legal precedent seems to be on the home schoolers' side." Ms. Lines fails to mention that a long and unbroken line of more than 10 directly relevant and officially reported cases has weighed the balance in favor of the state's compelling interest in education (and that cases concerning the home schoolers' liberty, privacy, and equal-protection rights have also been consistently decided in favor of local and state authorities). Instead, she refers to secondary, scholarly sources, using the American Civil Liberties Union--a less than objective source--as an example of the proper attitude toward home schooling.

Ms. Lines is on target when she says state legislatures are the appropriate places to resolve this issue. She does not, however, make it clear that in those states where the legislature chooses not to allow home instruction or to carefully limit it by a reasonable combination of standards--standards involving teacher competency, testing, etc.--a solid body of case law clearly favors the constitutionality of this choice.

What legislatures and the public need when faced with such choices is more balanced information that focuses on clearly describing--rather than cleverly prescribing--legal developments in education. In this case, I have found it necessary to assume a less-than-neutral position to correct the unexpected and unwarranted imbalance in Ms. Lines's Commentary.

Vol. 05, Issue 09, Page 19

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