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September 9, 2011

Homeschooling Situation Becoming Urgent

“We’re facing an urgent situation,” said Daragh McInerney, president of La Asociación para la Libre Educación (ALE),the largest homeschool association in Spain. His remarks came at the conclusion of the largest gathering of Spanish homeschoolers in the history of the modern home education movement in Spain. As over 100 families gathered near the country’s South Coast September 1–5 for a retreat, McInerney was developing a plan of action in the wake of an unprecedented number of legal disputes between homeschoolers and local authorities.

“There are at least 25 families in Spain, that I am personally aware of, who are facing difficulties with the authorities over homeschooling,” McInerney told HSLDA.

Homeschooling is uncommon in the European nation of about 40 million. McInernry estimates about 2,000 Spanish families teach their children at home.

Changing Legal Climate

Until recently, conflicts between homeschool families and the authorities were rare. But the legal climate has quickly gone from one of bureaucratic indifference to active hostility, resulting in a demanding set of challenges to McInerney. The European Union allows for free mobility of citizens from member countries, and Irish-born McInerney, an English teacher, and his wife, Mibell, who is an American-born Spanish citizen, have been home educating for three years.

“School was not working for our family,” he said. “We wanted more time together, and we were troubled by our children’s increasing lack of interest in learning. In Spain, children go to school from nine to five, and with the amount of homework we were sometimes up till one in the morning completing the assignments. There were often tears in the morning as we got them up and sent them off to school.”

Michael Donnelly is HSLDA’s director for international affairs and has worked extensively with persecuted homeschoolers in Germany and Sweden. He spoke at the Spanish gathering.

“We had no idea that the situation was this bad in Spain,” Donnelly said. “I met several families who had taken their children out of school because of problems with teachers, bullying, and poor academic instruction. Homeschooling wasn’t a problem before, but now these families are being summoned to court. It is really unconscionable for Spanish authorities to treat Spanish parents in this heavy-handed way.”

Grateful for Support

The most recent case reported by HSLDA involves the Gonzalez family, who reside near Alicante, Spain. The family told HSLDA they feared a trial scheduled for September 9 could result in their son being order to attend school.

“Our son wants to be homeschooled, and we want to homeschool him,” said Rodolfo Gonzalez. “We took him out of school last year when he was being bullied and having trouble with some of his teachers. We heard some people talking about homeschooling, and researched it on the internet, and decided to give it a try. Evan has been doing much better and enjoys learning at home.”

The family told HSLDA they were grateful for the support of homeschoolers from America and around the world. Both parents were visibly moved as they spoke.

“We were inspired by stories of American homeschoolers who have been so successful,” said Mila Gonzalez. “We thought perhaps this could be our son, if we work hard. The emails and moral support means everything to us. It lets us know that we are not alone.”

An HSLDA-sponsored petition for the family is posted online. As of September 7, 1,100 people from all over the world had signed it. The family intends to present at their trial both this petition and a brief from HSLDA surveying the research from the United States regarding the benefits of home education.

McInenry told HSLDA that the need is urgent.

“There are a lot of things to consider,” he said. “We’ve been gathering input from Spanish home educators and from homeschoolers from similar organizations around the world. There has been a robust exchange of ideas on what is best to be done. We weren’t really expecting this level of enforcement action so rapidly—so we are trying to move as quickly as we can with our limited resources.”

Holding out Hope

Donnelly was hopeful that ALE’s efforts at educating policy makers and the public would be effective.

“Most European countries make provisions for parents who want to homeschool,” he said. “International law, the European convention and other treaties that Spain has signed onto all provide for the educational freedom of choice for parents. Spain is no stranger to totalitarianism, transitioning to democracy only in 1975 after nearly 40 years under the dictator Franco, but this development is a huge step backward for liberty. As a civilized country and western democracy, Spain is going down the wrong course,” he added.

Donnelly told homeschoolers at the conference—via simultaneous translation on headphones—that even though homeschooling was a right, they would need determination and courage to realize success.

“It took decades for American and Canadian homeschoolers to achieve the freedoms we now enjoy. One thing is certain,” he told the group, “If you give up, you will certainly fail. But if you don’t ever give up, eventually you’ll succeed. Samuel Adams, one of the founders of our country once said that it ‘doesn't take a majority to prevail, but only a tireless minority willing to set brushfires in the minds of their neighbors.’ Don’t give up!”

Sergio Saavedra is a Spanish attorney who recently started homeschooling his children. He attended the conference and informed HSLDA of the impact of the recent court decision.

“In 2010 our Spanish constitutional court issued a case that was unfavorable for homeschoolers. We have heard that the administration in Madrid has told prosecutors to more aggressively prosecute homeschoolers,” Saavedra warned.

Unfavorable Rulings

Spanish courts are not the only European legal institutions that have frowned on homeschooling. In 2003, the German constitutional court issued its infamous Konrad decision saying that the German public had an interest in “stamping out religiously or philosophically motivated parallel societies.” In 2007 the German high criminal court compared homeschooling with psychological abuse. Similarly harsh language has been used in Swedish courts in the Dominic Johansson case. Spain is a signatory to the European Human Rights Convention which explicitly protects parent’s rights in the area of education. But the Strasbourg, France-based European Court of Human Rights, which interprets the treaty, has not been friendly to homeschoolers.

In 2006 the court refused to hear the application of the Konrad family, saying that Germany was within its “margin of appreciation” to ban homeschooling. In its explanation for not hearing the merits of the case, judges wrote that Germany’s actions—such as fining parents who educate their children at home—were not violations of the convention.

The court has also been uncharacteristically slow regarding the case of Dominic Johannsson. Dominic was seized by Swedish authorities in a stunning display of state power on June 26, 2009, as the family was about to depart for Mrs. Johansson’s home country of India. Since then the parents have been permitted only brief and sporadic visitation and have not been permitted to see or talk with their son for over six months. Swedish officials pointed to their obligation to protect the boy’s right to an education. After being in custody and in subsequent court hearings, authorities pointed to some minor dental problems and a spotty vaccination history as justification for continuing to hold Dominic in state custody. In correspondence with HSLDA last year, senior government officials cited the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as further justification for their actions taken in this case. An application to the ECHR on behalf of the parents was brought by the Alliance Defense Fund, HSLDA and a lawyer for the Nordic Committee on Human Rights.

In Germany and Sweden the legal situation has remained hostile, but enforcement action has been restrained in the most recent 12-month period. While cases continue in both countries, the use of highly intrusive and threatening force has been reported less frequently. Jonas Himmelstrand, president of the Swedish homeschool association, ROHUS, and who was present at the Spanish conference, told HSLDA that he believes international pressure and media attention are a factor in the reduced enforcement action in Sweden.

“The fact that the international media has made such a big deal about the Johansson case and homeschooling seems to have really sensitized Swedish authorities to taking any severe action,” he said. “HSLDA’s leadership and assistance in our court cases and in shining the light on our situation has been very helpful. Having the support of homeschoolers from America and Europe has been important to us. This moral support encourages us to stay strong in our convictions and to fight against the repression of our rights.”

In the News

Karen Kern, a German homeschooler and member of the Netzwerk Bildungsfreiheit, an association of German groups working for freedom in education, agreed.

“News reporting on homeschooling in Germany is more favorable now than in the past,” said Kern.

Himmelstrand is an internationally known speaker and author of The Rise and Fall of Swedish Family Policies in which he is highly critical of Swedish family policies. The policies, he says, have resulted in the near-destruction of the family in Sweden. Swedish insensitivity to the needs of families carries over into the area of homeschooling he says.

“The idea that one hundred families are a threat to Swedish society is ridiculous in the extreme,” he says. “Sweden’s intolerance of homeschooling is a measure of its disregard for individual liberty. Swedish authorities’ complete lack of respect for the family shows in other places too like its day-care policies. Ninety percent of children over the age of 18 months are in state day care, and authorities cite this as a good thing. Homeschooling is like a litmus test showing a country’s commitment to democracy and freedom. I agree with a human rights activist who once said ‘show me how you treat your dissidents, and I’ll tell you how healthy your democracy is.’ ”

HSLDA President J. Michael Smith echoed concerns over the recent developments in Spain and said that they are a reminder about how fragile freedom can be. He pointed to the need for homeschooling parents to stay vigilant.

“Homeschoolers are doing something very different with their children,” Smith said. “Some people think the state should oversee education and this kind of freedom threatens their notions of social transformation. Freedom can be fragile foundations, at times, as California homeschoolers learned in 2008. Situations like this demonstrate how quickly things can change and why it is important for homeschoolers to be vigilant and prepared.”

“Fighting against repression of homeschoolers in Europe and other places helps all of us because ideas travel quickly. It is important that we fight wrong attitudes about homeschooling where ever we can,” he continued.

HSLDA is mobilizing resources to assist homeschoolers in Spain with legal research and strategic consulting. We are not asking our members to make any contact with Spanish authorities at this time, although this may become necessary. We are asking our members to consider making a special donation to the Home School Foundation’s International Fund to support Spanish homeschoolers, and others like them overseas, who are persecuted and powerless because of their small numbers.

 Other Resources

“Family Facing Legal Difficulties in Spain”

Donate to the Home School Foundation’s International fund.

Visit La Asociación para la Libre Educación’s website.