Letters To The Editor
In the Oct. 30 issue, Perry A. Zirkel's Commentary ("Defense of Home Instruction 'Not Warranted"') described a Commentary I wrote ("States Should Help, Not Hinder, Parents' Home-Schooling Efforts," May 15, 1985) as "based on skewed and sketchy evidence," "unfairly loaded," "specious," "unwarranted," and "distorted."
I welcome good criticism. I don't, however, think Mr. Zirkel's Commentary qualifies. He presents little contrary data (which is just as well, because those he does offer are wrong). He presents no arguments as to why home instruction should be illegal. And he suggests no directions for future research or analysis.
Allow me to respond to several points he makes.
1. Mr. Zirkel writes: "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 have only 'implicit' exceptions."
Actually, as of October of last year, 29 states had adopted statutes explicitly allowing home instruction. Not 20, but 11, states were in the "implicit" category--and the wording of the statutes in the "implicit" states leaves little doubt that home instruction is permitted.
In addition, Illinois and North Carolina recognize home instruction by virtue of court decisions that the requirement of "school" attendance in their statutes includes "home school." Michigan's attorney general and state boards in Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and New Hampshire have also decided that the home can be a school.
This leaves only Texas, among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, maintaining that home instruction is not a legal way to meet compulsory-schooling requirements. And Texas legislators are re-examining their law.
2. Mr. Zirkel contends that "Ms. Lines artfully switches the direction of the prevailing legal assumption that the party challenging the administrative agency generally has the burden of proof."
At no point in my Commentary did I discuss burden of proof. Further, the burden of persuasion in the political arena (where my essay was presented) is whatever the policymaker wants it to be.
I note, though, that Mr. Zirkel seems to be raising the issue of burden of proof at the trial-court level, and there he puts it on the parents. In fact, the matter depends on how the statute is written. For example, the burden of proof was placed on parents in home-schooling cases decided under statutes in Alabama, Iowa, and New York, but was placed on the state in cases decided in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin.
3. Mr. Zirkel also argues that my "assertion that '[proportionately] more children are failing academically in public school than at home' is based on skewed and sketchy evidence."
In fact, I neither said nor implied that the number of children failing in public schools was "proportionately" more than any other group. This is Mr. Zirkel's word, and its use, even in brackets, is wrong. I was talking in absolute numbers, reasoning that there are so few children in home instruction that it's fairly safe to say that a greater number in public schools fail. My cautious conclusion was that "home schooling seems to work."
Backing up this conclusion was my review of the only systematically collected evidence that I could identify: data collected by state departments in Arizona and Alaska and in a Los Angeles suburb.
4. Regarding my statement that as many as 50,000 children are estimated to be receiving home instruction, Mr. Zirkel says that "such numbers are subject to the inflationary effects of wishful thinking" and are supported by "no solid evidence."
These estimates are difficult to make, of course, but there is also some fun in trying. Until recently, I used the late John C. Holt's estimate of 10,000, but every time I did, Ray Moore, another home-schooling advocate, would call and say it was 50,000. This state of affairs led me finally to make my own telephone poll of suppliers of home-instruction materials.
I found seven suppliers (out of some 30 listed by Holt Associates, a home-instruction support group) who were willing to report their home enrollments and sales of home-instruction packets. Others said the data were confidential; some phone numbers were not in service. In the seven programs, there were 22,000 packets distributed for children in grades K-8. With so many high-school correspondence courses available, I could not even begin to estimate the size of the older (and often self-instructed) group in grades 9-12.
Of course, some companies may inflate their business. On the other hand, some children may share materials in the same year or in subsequent years; some parents may photocopy materials. Most important, many parents develop their own materials. Interviews with home schoolers lead me to believe that a majority develop their own materials. Hence, the estimate of 50,000--rough, to be sure, but not "wishful thinking."
Now that I have adjusted my estimate upwards, I still get calls from Ray Moore, who says the true figures are still greater. Home schoolers base their larger estimates on memberships in home-schooling associations. They may be right.
5. Mr. Zirkel says my use of the term "home schooling" is "unfairly loaded."
Nine state statutes require "school" attendance, with no other alternative--but by virtue of interpretation by court, attorney general, or state board, the home can qualify as a "home school." It's a term that conveniently embraces the practice of 49 states and the District of Columbia.
6. Mr. Zirkel writes: "Ms. Lines makes the point that states that do not expressly allow home instruction are prosecuting parents. ... Then, inexplicably, she draws a cause-and-effect link to a separate point. She says there is more enforcement against parents of home-educated children than against those of dropouts and truants."
My essay draws no cause-and-effect link between these two observations. There probably is none.
7. Mr. Zirkel maintains that "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."
Paragraph 13 of my Commentary is devoted to a discussion of recent cases lost by home schoolers. If anything, this paragraph is "biased" against home schoolers, as it fails to mention recent cases that favor home schoolers in Georgia, North Carolina, and Indiana.
8. Mr. Zirkel charges that I did not "make it clear that in those states where the legislature chooses ... to carefully limit [home instruction] by a reasonable combination of standards--standards involving teacher competency, testing, etc.--a solid body of case law clearly favors the constitutionality of this course."
My Commentary, in fact, makes it clear that "there are several options available to states that feel a need to regulate home instruction. ... Many states choose to test children. Reasonable standards for the teacher ... are another option."
It is extremely difficult for most of us doing social research and analysis to avoid having opinions about the policies we review. I suspect that every researcher has a bias, and the most honest thing is to know it and make it plain. My own bias on home schooling is simply this: I am not advocating that parents educate their children at home, but that states decriminalize such instruction when parents choose to undertake it.
And I hope that Mr. Zirkel will tell us what his bias is, too--for his October Commentary did seem to reflect a curious lack of objectivity.
Readers who wish a more detailed discussion of the points I've made on this topic should see "Compulsory Education Laws and Their Impact on Public and Private Education," a report I wrote last year for the Education Commission of the States, and "Private Education Alternatives and State Regulation," an article of mine in the Journal of Law and Education, Vol. 12, April 1983.
As a postscript, I wish to apologize to any reader of my essay who thought I was speaking on behalf of the Education Commission of the States, for which I was then working. A disclaimer was missing, due to an oversight. Likewise, I am writing this letter in my private capacity, not in my capacity as a consultant to the U.S. Education Department. No official endorsement of these views by the department is intended or should be inferred.
Patricia M. Lines Washington, D.C.