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State High Court Rules on Home Schools

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Massachusetts' highest court has handed down a ruling that sets guidelines for school superintendents and committees to follow in determining whether parents are competent to teach their children at home.

Acting in a case involving a fundamentalist Christian family from Canton, the Supreme Judicial Court held on March 2 that neither the parents' 14th Amendment right to control the upbringing of their children nor the state's interest in the education of its citizens is absolute. The rights of each, the court said, must be exercised so as to avoid "unreasonable interference'' with the rights of the other.

Parents Charged in Suit

The case began in 1985 when Richard and Denise Moskos, citing their Christian beliefs, informed the Canton school superintendent that they planned to teach their three elementary-school-age children at home.

After several school-committee hearings and meetings with the parents, school officials rejected the couple's proposal. The officials later filed suit in state district court charging the couple with a violation of a state law requiring parents to provide "necessary and proper physical or educational care'' for their children.

The trial court ruled in favor of the school district and ordered the parents to enroll their children in the local public school. The parents appealed the ruling, arguing that it violated their 14th Amendment right to determine their children's upbringing and their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. In an unusual move, the state's high court decided to hear the case itself, bypassing the state appeals court.

Argument Not Considered

In its ruling, the high court said it was unnecessary to consider the parent's First Amendment argument, because it was clear that they possessed a 14th Amendment right to control their children's upbringing.

"While the parents ... possess a basic right in directing the education of their children, such a right is not absolute but must be reconciled with the substantial state interest in the education of its citizenry,'' the court held. "[T]he state interest in this regard lies in ensuring that the children ... receive an education, [and] not that the education process be dictated in its minutest detail.''

The court then outlined the following guidelines for the approval of home-schooling programs:

  • Parents must obtain approval for their home-schooling proposal from local school officials before removing their children from the public schools. Factors that can be taken into account in judging the program include: curriculum and instructional materials; length of the school year and school day; the competence of the parents to teach; and provisions to ensure that the children are attaining minimum standards.
  • School committees must provide the parents with an opportunity to explain their proposed plan. At this stage, the parents carry the burden of proving that the program is generally equivalent to that provided in public schools.
  • If the plan is rejected, the school officials must give the parents a chance to revise the proposal to remedy its faults.
  • If the parents begin home schooling in the face of school officials' objections, the burden shifts to the officials to show that the program violates state law.

Reactions to Ruling

Peter S. Capernaros, superintendent of the Canton school district, said the ruling gave him and the local school committee "pretty much everything we wanted.''

"Their guidelines are doggone close to the guidelines we asked the parents to meet and which they refused to adjust themselves to,'' Mr. Capernaros said.

Paul O. Dillon, the parents' lawyer, said he planned to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the ruling.

"The main problem is that they never addressed the basic First Amendment issue,'' he said. "They will not seek prior approval from the school committee, even if it appears that the school committee will give it to them.''

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