C O V E R S T O R Y
An Open Door: Prague Parents Eager; Officials Cautious to Step Through
It was like 1982the year my wife and I started home schoolingall over again. A small group of parents gather, intrigued by the concept of home education. A few are already home schooling. But there is one major problem, home schooling is illegal.
I recently spent six days in the Czech Republic speaking to government officials, education leaders, and interested parents about home schooling. I was invited to come to Prague by Michal Semin of the Obcansky [Civic] Institute, the local organizer of the World Congress on the Family held in Prague in 1997. Michal and I met at that conference and began to discuss the growing interest of a few Czech families, including his own, in home education.
There are three Czech families who are currently home schooling. I met all of them on my trip. Two of the three started private schools in 1991. Upon discovering that these private schools were just for the families own children, government officials changed the law to require a minimum of 13 students in any private school. However, the two families were allowed to continue under a grandfather clause. (These schools may only teach students through the fifth grade).
The third Czech family have children born in America and they are being left alone on the basis of their dual citizenship.
I found the story of the first home schooling family in the Czech Republic very inspiring. In the early 1990s, Jiri and Hana Tuma became interested in home schooling their three daughters after reading some American literature on the idea. Jiri is a college professor of mathematics and Hana is a trained teacher. They used an newly enacted Czech law to start a private school in their hometheir own children were the only students initially although one or two others have joined them at times.
Under Czech law, they are required to post a sign announcing the schools name on the outside of the building. And according to the provision, the name must begin with the word school and include the name of the street where the school is located. The Tumas live on Behind School Street in a little town about 45 minutes outside Prague. So the name of their school is School Behind School. However, in the Czech language the name has an even more ironic meaning. The idiomatic phrase for truancy is behind school. So, in effect, their home school is announced to the world with a sign that says School of Truancy.
Jiri and Hana felt the sameor perhaps even greaterintense scrutiny and societal disapproval that was experienced by American home schooling pioneers. But Jiri and Hana both give credit to Hanas father for an example of courage in standing alone.
Hanas father was one of the few farmers who retained private ownership of property during the Communist era. For refusing to join the collective, he and his family were faced with blackmail, intimidation, and threats. There were even efforts to starve the family by denying them permission to kill even one of their own chickens to feed their children.
Through it all, Hanas parents stood fast and took their girls with them into the fields whenever they could consistent with school schedules. This outstanding legacy of individual courage led the Tumas to become the first home schooling family in the Czech Republic.
In addition to meeting with families interested in teaching their children at home, the primary purpose of my trip was to speak to government leaders about legalizing home schooling. I met with the Deputy Minister of Education, Petr Roupec, who has the primary national authority for K12 education. We had an earlier meeting with his chief deputy. I also met with the senator who chairs the education committee, Frantisek Vizek, and his education advisor, the vice-chairman of the national parents union.
Under Czech law, Roupec may authorize experiments that last up to five years. If employed, home schooling could be authorized for this experimental period. The Ministry of Education is studying several options, but the signals seem to indicate the most interest is in opening home schooling for the elementary grades.
My meeting with Senator Vizek was also very positive. Although he is a member of the Social Democrats (socialist) party, it was like having lunch with a member of the U.S. Taxpayers Party. He did state, however, that his views were not held by a majority in his party.
Vizek promised to push for the permanent legalization of home schooling after the elections in June. It is expected that the Social Democrats will win. Most conservatives would view the ascendancy of the Social Democrats as a troubling development for the Czech Republic in general terms, but it may actually prove beneficial for home schooling.
Both the senator and his advisor indicated that personal experiences with the former Minister of Education had soured them on the education establishment. They were very open to new ideas for education. An ounce of personal experience tends to outweigh a pound of political philosophy.
During my visit, I also taught a seminar on home schooling for education professionals (professors and the like). At the seminar, the Department of Education official in attendance announced that the Ministry was very close to allowing home schooling.
The Czech press, who attended this seminar and other of my public meetings, seemed intrigued by the idea of home schooling. A major daily Prague newspaper, a national weekly newsmagazine, and Radio Free Europe did intensive interviews. Naturally, they all asked the question, What about socialization? I was prepared to answer.
One of my most significant meetings with an opinion leader was with Bishop Jiri Padour who oversees education matters for the Catholic church. He had never heard of home schooling before our meeting, but was impressed by the results of home education I was able to show him.
On a more personal note, Bishop Padour seemed quite moved by the fact that Vickie and I have 10 children and with the testimony I shared with him about Vickies experience. I related that Vickie used to doubt her decision to be a stay-at-home mom because the world did not treat this choice as valuable. She knew it was right intellectually, but was tempted to think otherwise. After we began home schooling, her view totally changed. She saw real fulfillment in her role as a mother and it was home schooling that helped change her views on birth control and embrace motherhood in a more complete way.
At the end of our meeting, Padour promised to preach a sermon on home schooling (or to mention it in a sermonI was speaking through a translator). Michal Semin said that this would be a major endorsement for the movement.
The highlight of the week was my meetings with two enthusiastic groups of parents interested in home education. One was organized by an evangelical group. The second group was the fledgling home school association. There were about 20-25 families represented in the two meetings. Some had driven several hours to attend.
The home school association consists of conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and at least one secular home school family.
As I noted at the beginning of this article, the atmosphere in these two meetings was reminiscent of home school meetings in the U.S. in 1982. There was much hope and excitement, much fear of the unknown. But my presence was a source of encouragement to them, especially when I assured them that we had very few resources of any kind in 1982. They saw the potential for their movement, and more importantly, for their families.
On my last full day in the Czech Republic, I spoke at a new nondenominational Christian teachers college. The college leadership wants the school to develop a textbook publishing program for Christian schools and home schools.
It is my growing belief that there is a great missions opportunity available to American Christian home schooling families. If an American family went to a country like the Czech Republic for the purpose of becoming a resource and aid to (not the leader of) new home schoolers, it would have a tremendous impact. Not only would such action provide practical help to hurting families and societies challenged by years of Communism, but also it would be the basis for genuine friendship with dozenseventually hundredsof families who may not know the gospel of Jesus Christ. Like a medical missionary who goes to heal the sick and uses the relationship as an opening to introduce patients to the Great Physician, a home school missionary can go to help families with their education and in the course of normal living have more opportunities to present the gospel of Christ than many traditional missionaries may ever have.
Of the dozens of international trips I have taken to advance human rights and religious liberty, there is no doubt that this was, by far, the most productive. A major part of the credit goes to Michal Semin who knows how to organize meetings and who has a well-deserved reputation as a credible spokesman for the family. But at a deeper level, I believe the success of this trip signals that a door is being flung wide open to the families of Central and Eastern Europe.