The Washington Times
January 5, 1999

Massachusetts court boosts parents’ rights

By Michael Farris
The Washington Times
January 5, 1999

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled on Dec. 16 that school districts could not demand “home visits” as a condition of approving a family’s application to home school their children. The court ruled that only those requirements that were “essential” to ensuring that children learn were consistent with the right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children. Home visits, the court reasoned, were not essential in light of the review of curriculum, teacher qualifications, and achievement testing that had been agreed to by both the parents and the school district.

This decision decisively nails the coffin lid shut on the practice of home visits, since the Lynn, Mass., school district was the only district in the nation to demand such intrusions. But it is even more remarkable for the Massachusetts high court’s clear understanding of home schooling and positive treatment of parental rights.

The court said that the school district’s reasons for wanting home visits “have to be measured against the nature of the home education involved in the plaintiffs” case (namely, parents teaching their child in their own home), which in certain important ways can never be the equivalent of in-school education. For example, at home, there are no other students (except perhaps siblings), no classrooms and no rigid schedules. Parents who teach at home have a very different relationship with their children than do teachers in a class full of other people’s children. Teaching methods in the home setting may be less effective than those used in the classroom because the teacher-to-student ratio is maximized, a factor permitting close communication and monitoring on an individualized basis.

Based on the court’s clear understanding of these important distinctions in the nature of home education, a home visit simply could not be expected to yield information that would be essential to the goal of ensuring an adequate education.

Equally important is the court’s underlying assumption regarding parents’ rights. The school district argued that they needed on-site monitoring lest one child might not receive the kind of education that was needed because of inadequate instructional space. But the court responded saying: “We doubt that parents like the plaintiffs, who are so committed to home education that they are willing to forgo the public schools, and devote substantial time and energy to their children, will let the children’s progress suffer for lack of adequate instructional space.”

How refreshing. The court assumed that parents will do the right thing for their children and that there is no need to invade homes to check on all parents just because an occasional parent might do the wrong thing. This case has two lessons, one for home schoolers and the other for all citizens.

Home schoolers need to realize how important a role the public perception of our movement played in this case. Home schoolers are viewed as responsible people who give our children a high-quality education. We dare not take this perception for granted. Home schoolers must continue to strive for personal excellence because our future freedom is very much bound together with our reputation. We also must give assistance to any that struggle with home-schooling, and failing a proper turnaround, advise them to pursue another form of education for their children.

But all of us need to embrace the central notion of this decision. A free nation requires us to trust average citizens to do the right thing even without a government program to review us periodically. There is, after all, a thin line between freedom and totalitarianism. In a free country, the government must have evidence of wrong-doing to be able to intrude into one’s home, business, bank accounts, and, yes, children. In a totalitarian state, government can invade these spheres against the wishes of any citizen—just in case there might be some wrongdoing.

Freedom requires us to trust citizens. The desire to check on the innocent is a totalitarian impulse that is fundamentally anti-American.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, just yards away from Boston’s Freedom Trail, gave us all a signal of the direction to follow to remain on the path of freedom.

Michael Farris is the father of 10 home-schooled children and chairman of the
Home School Legal Defense Association

Copyright 2000 News World Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times. Visit our web site at http://www.washtimes.com.