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October 3, 2014

Growing Movement Hit by Statist Backlash

Michael Donnelly
HSLDA Director for Global Outreach

The Wunderlich family
The Wunderlich family is determined to stay in Germany and continue fighting for homeschool freedom. Their case exemplifies the way many foreign governments are attempting to restrict a growing movement.

HSLDA’s director for global outreach reflects on the tragic stories of families bearing the brunt of government hostility towards homeschooling. He argues that such repression cannot be tolerated in free societies and cannot solve what some authorities view as the “problem” of parents seeking educational freedom. Such hostility only reveals a dangerous totalitarian philosophy whereas new research shows that home education produces an important social benefit that critics argue is impossible—greater tolerance.

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As the homeschool movement continues to grow rapidly in the United States, and even more rapidly abroad, some families who choose this non-traditional path of education have sometimes faced overwhelming resistance from state power. In Europe particularly, but not exclusively, statist forces are exerting greater control over families—and not just in education.

For homeschooling families however, the effects of state interference can be intense. Some have been forced into exile; children have been taken. A few parents have even been jailed over conscientious objection to government control over the education of their children. In free societies such a forceful reaction to home education reveals a totalitarian desire to control society and disdain for basic freedoms.

However, brave families facing such consequences have shown that force will not prevent them from doing what they think is best for their children. Their example and experience is a lesson for all parents—whether or not they homeschool.

Families Under Fire

In Germany, the Wunderlich family was reunited in September 2013 only after parents Dirk and Petra Wunderlich promised to send their children to public school. When they asked for legal custody back so they could immigrate to France, they were refused. Judge Malkmus cited German precedent that homeschooling is child endangerment and reasoned that he could not release children to a family who wanted to leave to homeschool since that would put the children at risk.

In August of 2014, the family determined that they would re-start homeschooling after an appeals court returned legal custody to them. Their case is significant for homeschooling in Germany, and HSLDA is supporting the family and their legal team. HSLDA remains gravely concerned that Europe’s largest democracy continues to repress parental freedom in education, has violated this family’s right to move freely and most notably continues to effectively ban home education. Please keep the Wunderlich family in your thoughts and prayers. You can stay up to date by clicking here.

Finland, meanwhile, is becoming a growing refuge for homeschoolers, especially those from Sweden who flee repression. Jonas Himmelstrand is president-in-exile of the Swedish National Homeschool Association. He fled Sweden for Finland in 2012 when Swedish authorities threatened to take his home and possibly worse. He told HSLDA that he has become increasingly a travel planner for threatened Swedes who seek refuge in neighboring Finland.

“Interest in home education in Sweden has never been higher,” he said. “The country is going downhill fast as families are deteriorating and government slowly starting to become aware that it cannot replace families with government officials.”

In Northern Ireland, onerous regulations have been proposed by that province’s educational boards. The regulations reference the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and would greatly restrict and interfere with home education by allowing for home visitation, discretionary review by bureaucrats, and “private” interviews between children and “assessors” to determine whether home education should continue. HSLDA wrote about this in May.

Mike Donnelly
Staff Attorney Mike Donnelly is HSLDA’s director of global outreach. Read more >>

One family in the Republic of Ireland who objected to the burdensome and vague education statute there which requires parents to register before homeschooling have been found guilty of not sending their children to school. The mother, Monica O’Connor, was fined and sent to jail when she refused to pay.

O’Connor said she has a constitutional right to homeschool, and the state has no right to force her to apply for approval to homeschool or to register her children. Ireland is one of the few countries that explicitly provide for home education in their respective constitutions. Article 42 of the Irish Constitution says that “the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.”

But Europe is not the only place where home education is under scrutiny. In New South Wales, Australia, the ministry of education was on the verge of issuing new and more intrusive regulations when home educators acted. Activists gathered over 10,000 signatures which resulted in the legislature of New South Wales opening an official and formal inquiry.

Because of the overly burdensome regulations it is estimated that as many as two-thirds of the home educators in New South Wales have opted to simply not notify the state. We believe that the current regulations of New South Wales are overly intrusive, vague and unnecessarily burdensome. HSLDA submitted documents to the investigative committee encouraging them to substantially reform their law to remove unnecessary and onerous burdens from home educating families. Information about the inquiry can be found online.

In the United States there have been intermittent attempts to impose new regulation on homeschooling families. The latest attempt was in Ohio in December of 2013 when a state senator sought to introduce what would have been the most restrictive rules for home educating families in the country: requiring background checks for parents, home visits, one-on-one interviews with children and ultimately a stamp of approval from state social workers.

Thousands of homeschooling families mobilized, and the sponsor withdrew the legislation within weeks of its introduction. The sponsor cited the death of a child at the hands of the mother’s boyfriend the previous year as the reason for her bill. She linked the boy’s withdrawal from school as a factor in his death even though family members had been concerned for years and several investigations had been conducted. HSLDA has created a resource on this issue.

Does Democracy Demand Standardization?

Although the vast majority of research continues to show that homeschooling is an effective means of educating children and yields positive academic, social and civic results, some of the most vocal critics of home education still assert that children can only be socialized in government-controlled education systems. These critics, which includes the German Supreme Court, argue that more control over home and private education is necessary to force the general population into exposure with others, ostensibly so that children can be taught to get along with those who may look, talk, act or think differently. Somehow, apparently, if we can make everyone get together we can make everyone get along.

Some suggest that pluralism and democracy require total state control over education in order to ensure democracy’s survival. Such a view embraces the idea that children are the mere creature of the state, an idea the United States Supreme Court rejected nearly a century ago. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion on the matter, parental rights remain threatened by overreaching bureaucracies motivated by the desire for more control.

But, looking at it from another angle, what if minorities do not want to “integrate” (the Amish, for example)? And what exactly is meant by “integration?” Is it the state’s role to force people to relinquish distinctive attributes like language, culture, religion, or philosophy that are important to them? That is not to say that a democracy should have to sacrifice equal protection of the laws (such as in requiring the equal treatment of women) or that a common language be used (like English) or even a common culture (whatever that may look like). As our American experience with pluralism unfolds, it is not without great controversy in some areas.

Nevertheless, in a free and democratic society the state oversteps its legitimate boundaries when it commandeers the education system as a means of “integrating minorities” into the “mainstream” and only allows for the teaching of state-approved standards, values or curriculum, e.g. the Common Core.

Private education is an important check on the development of totalitarian tendencies, and democracies should foster private education, not repress it. In the United States an innovative form of private education is home education, which has grown dramatically from virtually zero children in the 1970s to over 2 million in 2014.

As it has grown, proponents of public education bemoan the growing population of children who are not “integrated.” They argue that such a trend is a foreboding portent of the demise of our pluralistic democracy. But if there any evidence to support the claim, they don’t point to any.

Homeschooling Promotes Tolerance

On the contrary, thanks to the work of educational doctoral student (and public school graduate) Albert Cheng, there is now important evidence that counters these claims. In fact, Cheng’s study, “Does Homeschooling or Private Schooling Promote Political Intolerance? Evidence from a Christian University,” suggests that home education is actually a force that yields more, not less tolerance.

It appears that the impact of parental involvement in education also plays a role in contributing to a healthy view of pluralism that our Founders envisioned.

Cheng evaluated hundreds of students at an evangelical Christian university and grouped students by their exposure to home education. Using an accepted definition of political tolerance, which is the willingness to extend civil liberties to those with whom you disagree, Cheng found that the more exposure a student had to homeschooling, the more politically tolerant he was likely to be. The study was small, but significant, and is the first scientific research showing that not only are the critics wrong, but that the reverse may be true.

Cheng’s research points to a potential connection between a child’s educational environment and his or her likelihood to exhibit tolerance for difference. Educational research has long shown the important role parents play in their children’s education. It appears that the impact of parental involvement in education also plays a role in contributing to a healthy view of pluralism that our Founders envisioned. Read a review by Dr. Brian Ray, a leading home education researcher.

Cheng’s small study will undoubtedly be subject to more scrutiny, but these early results show what many intuitively know: the family is a safe and nurturing place where children can learn and grow with confidence. When children learn and grow with confidence they are more likely to be sure of themselves and comfortable in tolerating difference. At the end of the day, no society founded on pluralism and self-government should tolerate hostility to private education or home education. Especially when common sense, now proven, even if in a small study, reveals homeschooling delivers a foundational element required for peaceful self-governance—true political tolerance.

Pluralism worth protecting appreciates that different people have different views but can still live together and self-govern peacefully. A system that represses educational freedom and denies that parents, not the government, know and act on a child’s best interest is a far graver threat to republican form of self-government. Policies in countries like Germany, Sweden and others that do not tolerate home education reveal a statist mindset that undermines their status as truly free societies; such policies should be changed. And those who criticize home education as creating intolerant, narrow-minded graduates should look at the evidence and re-evaluate their own narrow, and often overly politically motivated perspectives.

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