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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Credential Crackdown: Court's Homeschool Decision Imperils Online Learning

A state Court of Appeals ruling on homeschooling may have a dampening effect on virtual schools as well.
By Lauren Smith

The recent ruling by a California court that parents without teaching credentials cannot homeschool their children may have some effect in the world of online learning, with potential fallout for distance learning and virtual learning as well.

"The potential for this case is pretty significant," said Michael Donnelly, staff attorney for the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). "When you look at what the ruling says, kids have to go to a full day of school or be instructed by certified teachers. That's not what happens at virtual schools. You could make the argument that this would not allow virtual schools."

Homeschooling has never been stringently regulated in California. As it stands now, parents can homeschool their children by filing paperwork with the state that establishes their households as small private schools. They have the option to either hire credentialed tutors or enroll their children in independent-study programs run by private schools, charter schools, or school districts.

Many of these programs are operated online, and parents who homeschool use an array of online resources, including whole curriculum plans offered by companies that support their programs with tutors and teachers. As of January 2007, 173 virtual charter schools in eighteen states served 92,235 students.

But that may soon not be enough for California, where on February 28, the state's Second District Court of Appeal ruled that children must enroll in and attend public or private full-time day school unless the child is tutored "by a person holding a valid state teaching credential for the grade being taught."

The loophole here is that different virtual-learning and distance-learning programs have different standards. Although some employ only teachers with California credentials, others utilize teachers credentialed in different states. In addition, some online programs have the parent act as the primary or secondary educator. The ruling does not address these differences, and therefore, it is unclear whether the state would allow reciprocity for teachers credentialed in other states and whether homeschooling parents would also need to be credentialed.

No Constitutional Protection

"Parents do not have a constitutional right to homeschool their children," Justice H. Walter Croskey wrote in an opinion. "Parents who fail to [comply] may be subject to a criminal complaint against them, found guilty of an infraction, and subject to imposition of fines or an order to complete parent-education and counseling programs."

If imposed, the court ruling would challenge the homeschooling tradition thousands of families value across the state. Some critics have attacked the ruling as the most regressive form of education policy in the country.

"There aren't enough prisons to put us all in jail," said Steve Ramsey, who homeschools his son Wyatt through a charter school called Pathways. "Everyone knows someone who is homeschooled, but no one really knows how big a community it is. It's huge."

The HSLDA estimates that more than 2 million children are homeschooled throughout the nation. The court's decision sparked so much controversy that as of March 10, the organization's online petition had more than 168,000 signatures and was growing at a rate of one signature per second.

The controversial ruling was the result of a specific child-welfare and abuse allegation case involving a Lynwood, California, family that was repeatedly referred to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Though the parents enrolled their eight children in a private Christian academy, the mother, who is not a credentialed teacher, was their primary educator at home. Aside from the children taking occasional tests at the school and school officials infrequently visiting the family's residence, the family had no interaction with the school.

A trial court disagreed with a lawyer appointed to represent two of the children, who argued that the court should require the children to physically attend public or private school. But on appeal, the appellate court ruled that the family is violating state law and that their irregular contact with the academy did not qualify the children as being enrolled in a private school.

Uncertain Effect on Online Learning

It is not certain how this ruling will affect virtual-learning communities, but one thing is for sure: Online learning is growing dramatically; according to North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL), the number of students in grades K-12 who take courses online is growing 30 percent annually.

Jeff Kwitowski, vice president of public relations for the California Virtual Academies, the largest online public charter school in the state, says the ruling will not affect his institution, because its teachers are all credentialed and it is publicly funded by California. But the HSLDA's Michael Donnelly says that the far-reaching ruling does have the potential to interfere with public online charter schools.

"At an online school, who's actually doing the teaching?" Donnelly asks. "Is it a teacher who's credentialed in Nebraska but teaching children in California? Often, it's not clear. In some of the virtual public schools, the parents are the instructor; in some schools, they're the assistant instructor. It's unclear how virtual schools would be dealt with."

The lasting effects will not be certain until the case has made its way through the higher courts.

Spector, Middleton, Young & Minney, a legal office based in Sacramento, takes the position that this case does not address or affect the legality of non-classroom-based education in public schools, both charter and otherwise.

Even California's governor has publicly decried the court's decision. "Every California child deserves a quality education, and parents should have the right to decide what's best for their children," Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "Parents should not be penalized for acting in the best interests of their children's education. This outrageous ruling must be overturned by the courts, and if the courts don't protect parents' rights, then, as elected officials, we will."

At the least, the ruling is unlikely to be effective immediately, as the family is appealing the decision to the California Supreme Court.

The HSLDA plans to file an amicus brief on behalf of its 13,500 member families in California. "We will argue that a proper interpretation of California statutes makes it clear that parents may legally teach their own children under the private-school exemption," the association's briefing on the court ruling says. "However, if the court disagrees with our statutory argument, we will argue that the California statutes as interpreted by the Court of Appeal violate the constitutional rights of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their children."

Research shows that students in online learning perform as well as or better than their peers. The American Digital Schools 2006 Survey reports that 4 percent of K-12 students engage in online learning and that this number is expected to grow to 15 percent by 2011.

Lauren Smith, a freelance writer for education-focused publications, has reported for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Bangor Daily News, and the Scripps Howard News Service.

Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Paul Cooper's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that there is room for both in our society. It harkens back to totalitarianism when one institution (the public education system) seeks to stifle the right of a parent to educate their child as they see fit. And I find it extremely arrogant of those teachers in the public education system who believe that they have the exclusive right to knowledge. The truth is teachers and parents, don't always get it right. We need to find the best of both to engage our children and make them more active learners. In my personal example, my two sons were previously enrolled in a private Christian school using the Beka curriculum, which stressed phonics and cursive writing at the kindergarten level. When we moved them to the public school system (for financial reasons)the middle school teachers disregarded their ability to write and read better than their classmates and STOPPED them from improving their skills. As a result my 11 year old who previously had cursive handwriting that would shame a high school student, is only now being allowed to write in cursive and his penmanship has suffered. Unfortunately, I have always found this to be the norm rather than the exception in the public school system where conformity is, and will continue to be the rule.

Bob's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

First of all, aren't you getting tired of the government poking its nose into more and more areas of American life?

It seems to me that there are ONLY two "real" reasons anyone would be against homeschooling:

1) Not all of those students would be inundated with the far left propaganda touting the "nanny government knows all, sees all and should indoctrinate all" sheme of things, and

2) The BIGGEST reason: Each student NOT in class means less TAX money for the schools and ultimately: No raises for teachers who fail the kids everyday by NOT really teaching them. They are only biding their time by sleeping under their NEA shield, while letting the kids continue to falter.

People need to wake up! The PUBLIC school system in this country IS BROKEN and will remain so until discipline is restored, teachers are actually held accountable and paid on merits and NOT time-served (which is exactly what the status quo is), and we stop trying to teach to a test and actually get back to the basics!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Come on! How far is the government going to be digging into our lives? I am a teacher, but I believe parents have a right to home school their children. Especially when you consider how some schools are very unsafe and not a lot of learning gets done. If the government can guarantee a perfectly safe and effective school environment, then they might have the right to force a child into the school, otherwise, no!

Emily Marshall's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although every teacher can point to one homeschooling failure, the fact remains that homeschoolers score on average in the 85th percentile and are courted by Ivy League colleges that have found them to be better students than the average public schooler. I think the State of California is afraid that home and private schooling undermine public schools by showing how inferior they truly are.

Karen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Making sweeping statements with regard to all homeschoolers and unbiased public education led me to right a response. I have seen many home schooled students who are not only A students but in many cases well ahead of their public school friends. I have also seen some that are similar to what you have described. Public school education is rarely unbiased from the textbooks used to teachers' point of view or the political party in control for that matter. Public education is in jeopardy due to it's inability to govern itself, its failure to monitor its own teachers and its failure to change from its manufacturing design. I will also admit that it seems everyone in the general population thinks they can teach.

Maybe it is time to look at how other countries respect and value teachers and education as a privilege. It is time to look at what schools of today should be and provide appropriate licensed alternatives. Today's teachers are responsible for so much more than just the subject matter they teach. Not all students need twelve years of college-bound courses. Alternatives are necessary based on student ability, interest, religion (weren't we founded on this idea), and needs.

I recently observed a classroom that had a student with Asperger's syndrome, a student who was legally blind and a student with poor social skills that frequently hit other students. The class had 26 other students. It doesn't matter how many wrap-around aids this class has- the education of all students is hampered. Add NCLB, state testing, discipline problems, IEP's and it is amazing public education is still available at all.

I encourage everyone to be less critical of teachers, more patient with alternatives, and find ways to support education, as it is our future.

Abner Amador's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Is homeschooling illegal or non-effective? What is the real issue behind this case?

It is very simple to MEASURE if the educational system that is being used for a child is not meeting the standards of the state where the child lives by applying a standarized test. Based on the result (facts), then it will be very easy to RECOMMEND an alternative system for that particular child...so why make it a legal issue?

BUT TO BE FAIR, if such criteria is applied to a homeschooler, then it should also be applied to a child that attends a public or private school. Therefore if a child who attends a regular school is not performing according to state standards as well, he(she) should be recommended to a personalized system (like homeschooling)!

As both a father and a teacher, I have experienced with my two kids what many studies back up: Every child is an individual and as such, and educational system might work or not for that particular individual.

So, it is not just a matter of SENDING KIDS TO A SCHOOL...it is a matter of deciding what is the best learning and educational system for a particular child, and the bottomline is that, the parents, not the goverment, have the right to make this decision. If the parents decision of an educational system, is shown that it is not working at its best for their individual kids (based on facts not on opinions), then the goverment should be there to SUPPORT and give the parents OPTIONS, not to control or denied them of their rights.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have to agree with one of the above posts that home schooling does take commitment, time, and even self study to be a great teacher. Just because you're "credentialed" does not mean you're a good teacher. I don't want some 21 year old teaching my children along with 20+ other students half of which cannot understand english. So who is more qualified? Did some credentialed teacher teach my son how to use the bathroom? Brush his teeth? Read? Or social skills? Nope. I did. I am a fully qualified teacher because I am a responsible and loving mom who wants and gives the best I can offer. All you whiney eyed "credentialed" teachers who think home schooling does not work are basing your decisions on a select few who entered your classroom. They don't represent the vast majority of students taught at home. I home schooled my son and what his peers are doing now in school as 8th graders, my son did 4 years ago. Has he been tested? Sure has. And did very well. we are now working toward college credits while earnins his high school credits. And, I will add, Embry Riddle in Prescott is already offering him scholarships when he graduates (FYI: they review home schoolers applicants first because they know, by average, home schooled students perform best).

Cindy, Toledo , OH's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that homeschooling often does the child harm rather than good. Children need to be socialized as well as educated and neither of these is what I have seen when the children reenter the public school systems.

As for charter schools, I think that you need to do some research. As with public schools there are good and there are bad, but for the most part they are a great alternative to ineffective schools. When you are told by a public school teacher that your child's reading grade has dropped because she hasn't ever heard him read in the first grade and he doesn't seem to be improving by his choice of books, I question the ability of the teacher. When the principal's comment is "sorry she is paid for by a grant, I can't do anything", you look for a better alternative for your child. My children attend a charter school, I teach in a charter school, and I would not go back to union controlled, public schools ever!!

Frank Barnes, MAT, NBCT's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would just like to remind you that not all homeschooled kids take a norm referenced test or apply to any college at all, much less an an Ivy League school.

Steve Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am the director of a public school independent study program that has 42 families. I would say that the parents I have worked with are conscientious, imaginative, and fully aware of their responsibilities as a teacher/parent. The judge who wrote this decision is living in the 1920's. He has no clue about today's parents who use the many tools avialable to make their curricula meet state standards, as well as their use of community sports and recreation classes to provide social contacts for their kids. I am going to send work samples to the state supreme court so when the case comes before them they can see the fine quality of work produced by homeschoolers.

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