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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.

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Former Homeschool parent's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I don't often agree with the governor or California but I applaud his statement in this area. My formerly homeschooled son (16 years old) is now attending high school full-time and is an excellent student and does his homework with no coercing from his parents. It was his choice to enter public school when he did and we support him 100%!

Linnea: Colorado's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work for a virtual school and we require all of our teachers to be state licensed and certified. I think that virtual schools should require that the teachers are indeed trained teachers. Parents are not qualified to educate their children, but they play a huge role in how their child learns. I teach at the high school level and students are responsible to do their work just as they would in a brick and mortar high school.

Our school is a public charter school and not "home school". The main difference is that we have certified teachers doing the teaching, not parents who have no credentials.

Connie Spolar's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Before I earned my Multiple Subjects Credential, I homeschooled my own 6 children. I did have a Bachelor's Degree, but I was not a "credentialed teacher." Using an excellent phonics program that I purchased at a Home School Seminar, I taught them to read fluently at an early age. (I use components of that program in my classroom today.) They always received compliments at Sunday School for being such excellent readers. I was not credentialed, but I believe I was committed to education through purchased curriculum, frequent field trips to museums and zoos (which they would not have had the opportunity for in our local public schools), programs through a local Home School Group which provided experience based education in history (building a cardboard "log cabin," dressing up like explorers and piloting a small wood sailing ship, an Olympics day, panning for gold and a wagon train), and lots and lots of reading. We kept our TV in a locked cabinet during the week, and reading was a priority in our home. Most homeschool parents that I know have some college or are college graduates, although I personally do not feel that it is a requirement if one is committed to preparing by studying their child's curriculum with them. What the homeschool parents that I know have in common is a commitment to educating their children with religious values that would not necessarily be supported in the public school, and a desire to build a family bond that spending the majority of your day apart from your child does not support. Homeschool parents do not worry about school shootings or teacher sexual abuse. Two of my children first entered public school when they began high school; the others all had varying years of homeschooling depending on their ages when I decided to earn my credential. Their state testing results were always in the 90th percentile. I would probably do some things differently knowing what I know now, but I feel that they had a quality education and enriched experiences that many public school children do not receive. More importantly, though my children experienced "socialization" through church, youth sports leagues, and other clubs such as Scouts, they spent the majority of their time with me, which resulted in an enriched vocabulary, less peer pressure, and a closer family bond. Once my children did enroll in public school, they qualified for the Gifted program. Were they truly gifted or had they learned to think critically? I believe that they have good genes, but reading and lots of adult interaction is what enabled them to excel. I believe the court system is doing a grave disservice to many children with special needs in denying parents the right to educate their children at home. A loving parent working one on one or with a small group can accomplish more than a teacher in a class on 20-32. Parents should also have the right to have their religious values supported by education not counteracted upon. My children had public school teachers "teaching" that anyone who believed in God was ignorant. Teachers have taught them that God did not create the world; it just evolved. I am thankful that they had a strong foundation in their early years to resist some of the "philosophy" they were exposed to in public schools. I enjoy teaching, but if I had it to do overagain, I would try to homeschool longer than I did, but we needed a second income. More power to parents who can afford to homeschool and do. It is a commitment of time, energy, and finances.

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

As a public high school teacher with a master's degree and certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, I embrace all methods of teaching that can help students learn and achieve. I have taken a number of online courses myself and find this to be an effective method of instruction. Furthermore, I use my Website as a hub for much of the learning activities that my classes engage in, from research links to online discussions and blogs to essay submissions and feedback; I continually look for new and effective ways to integrate the Internet and other emerging technologies into my teaching. However, as with most educational environments, a great deal of a student's success lies with the teacher and the student/teacher relationship. Success can be even greater when there is a team in place for the student that includes a student, parent, and teacher cohort.

Lauren Smith writes in her article of 3/11/08, in regard to online programs for homeschoolers: "Research shows that students in online learning perform as well as or better than their peers." My question is, perform better at what? taking tests? getting into college? becoming productive, involved citizens? Also, what research is being referred to in this assertion? Is there anything mentioned about how the parents of these successful students engage in the process of their education?

I believe that many online courses can be effectively presented and that students who are motivated can learn. But standards of competence for the online educators must be in place, and parents should be held accountable for their children's participation in such programs. I believe that online education is going to continue to grow at a rapid rate. How that affects public and other brick and mortar schools remains to be seen. My hope is that it will be ethically governed by a reliable body of forward-thinking educators who will help it to maintain integrity and efficacy for those who choose to take that path in their educational pursuits.

Christine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

At the risk of being inundated with right-to-homeschool responses, I have to say that I agree completely with the court's decision. I am a Californa teacher in a public school, and do not support homeschooling, private schools, or charter schools. They all damage public education, and they do not provide an unbiased education for their students.

I have had many students enter my classroom having been previously homeschooled. All but one of them were very far below grade level in all subjects, yet their parents believed they were all A students. A fifth grade student who can't divide isn't an A math student. A fifth grade student who can't read and understand I-Can-Read early chapter books isn't an A reading student.

My district provides curriculum for parents who say they are homeschooling, but that does not guarantee that the parents use it. Those students who are being taught at home are not receiving a first class education, most not even a second class education.

Children, all children, are this country's future, and our greatest asset. They all deserve the best education, one that meets the same standards, one that provides an unbiased education in all the subject areas. Homeschooling does not provide that.

Irene Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My feelings about homeschooling have gone through a radical shift in the past twenty years. Over ten years ago, I chose to homeschool my daughter because there was not a better alternative for her during her middle school years. It was a positive experience for both of us. Since then as a public school teacher, I have encountered the negative results of irresponsible or inadequate homeschool teaching.
Because there is very little regulation or oversight, children are slipping through the cracks of society. Abusive and neglectful parents are able to hide what they are doing to (or not doing for)their children physically, mentally and academically. Our 1-8th grade school was unable to accept one intelligent 13 year old student who had left us to homeschool in the 3rd grade. His need for remediation was so great that we could not provide the one on one help he now needed to catch back up after six years of "unschooling."
I have had several other students whose well-intentioned parents managed to keep them from being negatively influenced by their peers but didn't adequately prepare them to be able to read, write or solve mathematical equations beyond the early grade levels. When they recognized their children were clearly falling behind, they put them in middle school, placing unneccesary burdens on teachers who must now "fill the gaps" while trying to teach new material to overflowing classrooms.
I believe that homeschooling can be very positive, but there needs to be better oversight, and in some cases, training, so that children don't slip through the cracks. This is as important a political issue as child welfare legislation was during the Industrial Revolution.

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