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In a case being watched closely by home educators, the Iowa Supreme Court has ordered the parents of a mentally retarded 11-year-old boy to enroll him in school.

The court left open the possibility that the child could be taken from the custody of his parents if they refused to send him to school.

The boy, who is mildly to moderately retarded, has been receiving instruction from his mother, a certified teacher, at their home on an Indian reservation near Tama.

State officials determined, however, that the youth was not progressing at home and needed to attend special-education classes at school. When the parents refused, they were convicted on charges of violating the state's compulsory-attendance law.

While the conviction is on appeal, the parents have continued to keep the child at home. So officials decided to move under child-custody laws, which can lead to termination of parental rights.

In its decision this month, the court agreed that the boy's needs were not being met. "A child's best interests include not only proper care and treatment, but also education," it ruled. "If the parents demonstrate continued resistance to in-school teaching, the juvenile court should then consider placement outside the home."

Some home-schooling advocates have expressed concern that the state may begin to move against parents through juvenile-court proceedings, which are closed to the public, rather than by prosecution under compulsory-attendance laws, which can lead to highly publicized trials.

A one-year moratorium on compulsory-education prosecutions expires this summer.

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