No End Seen to Flap Over Calif. Home School Policy

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 30, 2002 4 min read
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Scores of California home schooling parents defied the instructions of the state schools chief and filed affidavits this month with the state education department saying that they are running private schools.

Advocacy groups for home schooling had encouraged parents to file the affidavits, even though Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin reiterated in July her position that home schooling parents who do not have teaching credentials are operating “outside of the law,” and are not operating valid private schools.

Home schooling parents, who note that California law doesn’t require teachers at private schools to have teaching credentials, maintain that they can operate under the “private school” provision in state law. The parents’ action is the latest twist in a running dispute over how the state defines and treats families who school their children at home.

Michael Smith, the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va., argued in an interview that Ms. Eastin is wrong.

“We feel that the law is clear the way it is,” he said. “We’ve been home schooling [in California] through the private school exemption. The issue is whether home schoolers can comply with the private school provision, and they can.”

Such differing interpretations of California law illustrate what can happen in states that have not updated their laws to specifically address the burgeoning home schooling movement.

According to California Department of Education interpretations, home schooling parents may teach their children under a tutoring provision of the law, but only if the parents have state teaching credentials. They should not file affidavits saying they are running private schools, Ms. Eastin wrote in a July memo.

After Ms. Eastin distributed the memo, home schooling parents flooded her with so many calls and letters accusing her of unfairly applying the state’s compulsory schooling law to them that she wrote to legislators in August asking them to change state education law to address home schooling.

Currently, the terms “home schools” and “home schooling” do not appear in the California law.

“If home schools are to be authorized in California, that change needs to be made clear in the law,” Ms. Eastin advised legislators. “If there are conditions that ought to be placed upon the quality of education being offered in a home school, then that should be made clear as well.”

But last week, no one could point to a concrete sign that the legislature, in fact, would address Ms. Eastin’s concerns. The state superintendent is finishing her second term and cannot seek re-election.

No Action

Nichole Winger, the director of communications for the state department of education, said she had heard discussion “through the grapevine” that some legislators believe, “‘Well, we need to do something.’” But she couldn’t name any lawmakers who had publicly promised to take up the issue of home schooling legislation.

Lawmakers didn’t address home schooling before their summer session ended on Aug. 31, and the issue didn’t seem to have much urgency last week for legislators who were called for this story. Neither the president of the state Senate nor the chairman or vice chairman of the Senate education committee returned phone calls asking for comment.

Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, the Democrat who heads the education committee in the lower house, did grant a telephone interview on the topic. But she doesn’t see any need to change the current law.

The reasons she gives for her views differ, though, from those of home schooling advocates. Ms. Goldberg believes the law is clear that parents who don’t have teaching credentials aren’t authorized to teach their own children— and she doesn’t think they ought to be able to.

California isn’t the only state that doesn’t specifically name home schooling in education laws.

At least 11 other states don’t, according to Mr. Smith of the Home School Legal Defense Association. “All of these states have a private school law that home schoolers operate under,” he said.

The courts have stood by such interpretations, according to Mr. Smith. In 1985, for example, the Texas Supreme Court decided in Texas Education Agency et al. v. Leeper et al. that home schooling parents could instruct their children under the private school provision in Texas law, he said.

“What tends to shock people when they call us about home schools [in Texas] is to find there’s absolutely no oversight by anybody for those schools,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, the director of communications for the Texas Education Agency. “The courts have told us to leave them alone.”

California’s Ms. Winger, on the other hand, points to Pennsylvania as a model for how a state should address home schooling in its laws and written guidelines.

Pennsylvania Model

Sarah Pearce, an adviser for the school services unit of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said that her state changed its education law in 1988 because of pressure from home schooling advocacy groups.

Before then, parents couldn’t teach their children at home unless they had teaching credentials. Now they can. But they also must meet various state requirements, such as providing portfolios of their children’s work and ensuring that their children take standardized tests in grades 3, 5, and 8.

One California school board, the San Diego County board of education, has put the onus on the state department of education to clear up any ambiguity about home schooling.

In a September resolution, the board declared that “it supports private home education and strongly encourages the California Department of Education to clarify the Education Code Regulations to support home schooling, which it believes was always the intent of the California legislature.”

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