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August 10, 2011

Criminal School

Editor’s Note: This is an unofficial English translation of an article that appeared in the Swedish magazine NEO.

American parents can homeschool their children all the way into the elite universities. In Sweden, the government claims that it is impossible to homeschool at the Swedish junior high level. Therefore it is forbidden.

By Neo Editorial Staff

On an ordinary school day, 13-year old Isak Angerstig sits comfortably cuddled up in bed when he reads his schoolbooks. There is a desk in his room, which he uses when he writes, does math, or solves other tasks. The computers are in another room next to the kitchen. For chemistry and biology labs, he walks downstairs to a room on the bottom floor of the house in an Uppsala [Sweden] suburb.

Isak is one of about 100 Swedish children who are homeschooled. His teacher is his mother Lisa Angerstig, who is originally from Arlington, Texas, and therefore the teaching is done in English. When I visited the Angerstig family on a day in June, their school was actually done for the year, but for my sake the family’s four children—Isak and siblings Ester, Grace and Erik—put aside an hour of their summer break to answer questions about how it is to attend school at home.

“You can get done earlier,” says Isak, when I ask about the advantages to homeschooling. “Then you have time for both friends and sports without cutting short the time spent on homework.” He went to regular school in fourth grade, but chose to return to homeschooling. His mom Lisa describes Isak as strategically talented, good at chess at an early age, and time management is important to him. We pick up Isak and a friend, at whose house he spent the night, on our way to the Angerstig family’s house, and while we talk they are already late for their date with other friends in town. The friends in town are more appealing than talking to another journalist.

So instead it’s Lisa who shows us and explains about homeschooling. The bookshelves and closets are full of educational material, much of it from the United States, where homeschooling is much more common. In the computer room, the whole wall is covered by a large world map, and Lisa tells of the car vacation they took through Europe the summer after fifth grade when Isak had studied European geography and capitals. Lisa copied the course of study from the public school, but they are a doing math at a higher grade level. Subjects such as Latin, and tasks such as visiting senior living facilities or Tom Tits [Translator’s note: an interactive science museum], read old Swedish in encyclopedias, read books and magazines such as Science Illustrated and solve logic puzzles supplement the curriculum. She has ordered an intensive Spanish course for next school year and the children will also learn sign language.

“I’ve learned a lot about kings this year,” says Lisa, while talking about the Swedish course of study. She also finds using the geography and physics books to be easy.

“And Isak is learning a lot from his own court case, both about mass media and politics.”

There is a court case. What’s going on in the Angerstig home is illegal. Parents are not allowed to arrange education for their children at home except in isolated cases and for certain reasons that have been tried by local political units. During Jan Bjorklund’s time as Secretary of Education, the rules pertaining to homeschooling have tightened, and since 2010, when the new education code became effective, it’s basically forbidden. There is a lot of worry and desperation among the homeschooling families. Earlier this year some Swedish families moved to Åland [a Finnish island between Sweden and Finland] to be able to continue homeschooling. The Angerstig family pays fines for every day they homeschool Isak. The fines are around 80,000 Swedish kroner [about $12,500 in U.S. currency] per year.

“It has become a matter of principle. To me it’s a given that parents have the right to raise their children. I am not against the school. All the children have attended school. Isak tried fourth grade. He had no problems with the pace or his friends, but he preferred homeschooling. I don’t want to become politically active, but they can’t fine me into obedience.”

Lisa Angerstig does not want to cause any trouble, but after eight years of homeschooling she has become hardened from dealing with uncomprehending Swedish bureaucracy. She has met with the government organization that decides the family’s right to homeschool—first Erik and then Isak—for a total of 15 minutes during the last eight years, and those 15 minutes were in fall 2009 when she was denied homeschooling Isak for grades five and six. She was surprised by the decision as she had previously homeschooled Erik at that level with good results. No one has been interested in meeting Isak or finding out how the homeschooling is done. Lisa tried unsuccessfully to discuss what internationally renowned educators and testing methods would be adequate. The following day the denial arrived in her mailbox. The denial to homeschool was dated one week before the meeting took place.

And it may get worse for the Angerstig family. Daughters Grace and Ester attend school, but since April the oldest son Erik has also chosen to be homeschooled. He has completed eighth grade and wants to be homeschooled for ninth grade this fall to allow time to study the computer programming language Visual Basic.

It is impossible to educate children at such a high level. At least that’s what the Department of Education claims. “In junior high school, 16 different subjects are taught. To educate a student at the junior high level requires many different teachers, who are experts in different subjects. In no way can a parent completely replace that education,” says the Secretary of Education Jan Bjorklund (Rapport May 22, 2011).

The question is, how does Jan Bjorklund explain Thomas Atmer? Thomas is 20 years old and is majoring in physics and environment at Tufts University outside Boston, one of the elite universities in the U.S. Until then he was basically homeschooled all through his school years. With both parents being educators, college-level classes in political science, history and statistics were made possible, and a flexible school district allowed him to complement his homeschooling with classes in chemistry and physics at a college, plus competing on the high school tennis team at a nearby high school in New Hampshire, where the family resides.

American elite universities purposely recruit homeschooled students. To aid in this, there are several standardized tests available. References regarding character and extra-curricular activities also weigh in heavily. MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) praises the growing number of homeschoolers and their entrepreneurial skills and ability to delve deeply into subjects that interest them. Princeton and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., are other examples.

“Universities here are interested in homeschooled students,” says Thomas. “They want a mix of people with different backgrounds.”

So it seems that American parents can homeschool well enough to get their children into some of the top universities in the world. Although Thomas Atmer began his school experience in a more relaxed way.

“I studied art history one semester in Uppsala. It was a nice and easy transition; college environment but only a third of the homework.”

Swedish university level work was no challenge for Thomas. It was also one of the reasons his parents chose to homeschool.

“Both my husband and I had bad experiences in school. I remember it as one long bore: no homework, no grades, nothing happened educationally,” says Thomas’ mother Elisabeth Langby. In 1984 she wrote the book Winter in the Welfare State about the parallels between Sweden’s and Uruguay’s stagnant economy and overripe welfare state. It was almost considered prophetic during the Swedish crises in the early 1990s when the children were young. At about the same time, she and her husband moved to a smaller village in New Hampshire and started homeschooling first Thomas and then the daughter Hannah, who then was school-aged.

Higher academic ambitions was one reason to homeschool, but from the beginning it was more about giving a good start to a boy who didn’t sit still well, and the nearby schools were not appealing. It has been a time-consuming and demanding process. Books that didn’t measure up, having to learn Latin when none of the teachers worked out, pulling together small groups of children from nearby villages and because of a lack of resources having to exchange ceramics and painting lessons for language and the husband's math lessons, the charismatic English teacher who dramatized Shakespeare, to let the children read real books and not just text books, and how the education eventually became an inspiring parallel reading of comparative politics when Thomas studied political science at the university level.

“To homeschool is only about one thing. To learn things happens gradually. You can’t explain something once and expect it to stick.”

What about friends when you don’t attend school? That was a problem, admits Thomas Atmer.

“When I was 13–14 years old, a lot of my friends stopped being homeschooled, and it was hard to find new friends. I had to work harder at it.”

His younger sister chose to start boarding school in 9th grade because she missed having friends her own age, but was homeschooled again in 11th grade and will start at Cornell University this fall. Thomas socialized through scouts and sports. But at the same time, both Elisabeth Langby and Lisa Angerstig, who have met many homeschooled children, state that they are better at socializing with children of all ages and with adults.

Ambitious academic parents like Elisabeth Langby and her husband may be able to achieve good results, but what about other groups who homeschool? Studies made on the growing group of homeschoolers in the U.S. show that about one third homeschool for religious reasons and about 75% of homeschooling parents are active religious believers. There is also a leftwing tradition from the 1970s called “unschooling” whose educational philosophies involve following the children’s choices and interests in a natural way.

Maybe that’s why it’s so surprising that the studies that exist show much better test results for homeschooled children compared to children who have attended school. A larger study by Lawrence Rudner at the University of Maryland in 1998, which included 20,760 homeschooled students, is often cited. It shows not only consistently higher results among homeschoolers than the average for both public and private schools, but also that parents with little education do much better in homeschooling their children than the school does with children from the same background. A later study (Belfield and Levin, 2005) explains that most of the superior results can be explained by facts such as the parents’ background. Adjusted for this, the homeschooled students perform at about the same level as those in private schools, and both these groups significantly outperform their public school counterparts. So the fact remains that in spite of odd methods and motives for homeschooling, and that it is done at a much lower cost than public school (not counting the lost income for the non-working parent), the studies indicate higher rather than lower results. Homeschooled students also seem more involved in organizations and social work and seem happier with life.

The results can of course be criticized and questioned. The homeschooled students in these studies voluntarily took the tests which are mandatory in the schools, and there may be non-tested homeschooled students who would perform poorly. In addition there are many shortfalls in the American schools. But the evidence is in sharp contrast with the opinion that homeschooling can only on an exception basis give youths a good education. If anything, the evidence shows the opposite.

“I know there are different studies, but I can’t speak to their merits because I haven’t studied the results very carefully.” That’s the answer I get from Secretary of State Bertil Östberg when I bring up the results of the studies. Östberg says that Swedish education is based on scientific grounds, tried experience and is to promote certain values. But the experiences of homeschooling don't seem interesting to him.

Östberg claims that it would require a “giant controlling machine” to guarantee that homeschooled students received the same course of study. Yet other countries and universities seem able to evaluate the students’ knowledge and skills. Finland, Åland and Denmark, all close to Sweden, demand that the students achieve certain knowledge and skills rather than requiring them to attend school; there is a responsibility to educate rather than a responsibility to attend school.

Of course it depends a little on what’s required. To be accepted at Stanford University in the U.S., one has to have followed “a serious, rigorous course of study including humanities, science, math, social studies and language,” but a homeschooler does not have to have used the prepared homeschool programs available. When the Child and Youth Committee in Uppsala denied Per and Lisa Angerstig’s application to homeschool Isak in sixth grade, it was done with this motivation: “It is not clear that the parents can provide an education that is identical to that offered at the local school.” The requirement that homeschooling gives broad and wide knowledge and skills can be achieved many ways, but if the requirement is how it’s done and that everything has to be taught exactly as in public school, then it’s more difficult.

In these different demands, there’s an ideological and philosophical opposition. I ask Bertil Östberg if there are any student efforts or research results that could convince him that homeschooling works. He is doubtful.

“It’s not only about high academic achievements or participating in the corporate world. How can we guarantee that education is non-denominational and includes all elements?”

The fear from those critical of homeschooling is not about educational results or anything else that can be measured or judged. It’s about what the children may not become. They cannot turn out like their parents. In Sweden we tolerate most things, but not the thought that children grow up and become for example as fat, as religious or as stupid as their parents. That thought can get the most liberal lifestyle to demand that the state gets involved.

Will homeschooled children turn out like their parents? According to biologist Steven Pinker we should not worry too much about that. The parents’ upbringing only has a marginal impact on how the children turn out as adults. The friends are more influential and even homeschooled children have friends.

Lisa Angerstig stares at me in shock when I tell her that the Swedish authorities are afraid that she is trying to deny the children opportunities to choose and that the children will be indoctrinated with one-sided opinions if they don’t attend school.

“That’s Nazi talk! Homeschooling aims to discover the children’s gifts and interests and encourage them as much as possible. It’s the total opposite of indoctrinating and isolating.”

I asked homeschooled Thomas Atmer if he felt that parents tried to deny their children opportunities to choose by homeschooling.

“I have never experienced any parents trying to prevent their children from choosing to attend school. That choice is always given. The parents try to set a good example, but what’s wrong with that?”

Thomas is obviously following in his parents’ footsteps with higher academic studies, but in totally different areas of study. He wants to develop new kinds of energy.

Another fear is breaking loose from the parents. How will that happen if the children are taught in the home? The Angerstig family doesn’t seem to have very tight leashes on their children. That the family belongs to a congregation does not seem to prevent the children from playing violent computer games on a large screen in their basement with their friends. When the oldest son Erik showed interest in graffiti, he was given spray bottles and a basement wall to use. He is also permitted to scribble what he wants on the wall in his own room, which he utilizes frequently. Erik has also been caught by the police for his painting. He and some friends were given permission to paint some stacked hay bales next to a barn. They did it at 1 a.m. Suddenly a police car arrived and drove them home to their parents, since the police officers did not believe the explanation about them painting with their parents’ and the owner’s permission. “But why are they out at 1 a.m. painting?” asked the police officer. Lisa makes a sound best translated as “Meh!,” throws open her arms and retells what she told the police, “How exciting would it have been if it were in the middle of the day?” I wonder whether Jan Bjorklund’s school has anything similar to offer its students who want to paint.

Special text on Page 43

Yellow text: The requirement that homeschooling gives broad and wide knowledge and skills can be achieved many ways, but if the requirement is how it's done and that everything has to be taught exactly as in public school then it's more difficult.

Upper right corner:

FACTS. The right to homeschool:

Both the UN’s declaration of human right and the European Union’s code of rights declare parents’ right to choose an education for their children in accordance with their convictions. This parental right often conflicts with demands that education fosters certain common values or achieves political goals. The conflict came to a head in Germany, which preceded Sweden with a virtual ban on homeschooling. The 600–1,000 families who break that law do it mostly for religious reasons and to avoid the school’s sex education. There have been fines tens of thousands of Swedish kronor and prison sentences.

In September of 2006, the European Court for Human Rights went along with the German government. The European Court opined that the state is on the children’s side and parents cannot avoid compulsory education just to follow their own convictions. “The schools represent society, and it is in the children’s best interest to be part of that society. The parents’ right to educate does not include depriving the child of those experiences.” The Court also feels that the ban on homeschooling is necessary to avoid “growth of parallel societies that build on separate philosophical convictions” and point to the importance of integrating minorities into society.

In the U.S., differences in educational philosophies, choice of subjects and majors are viewed more as an obvious part of a pluralistic society than a threat against the same. In January 2010, the first German family forbidden to homeschool for these reasons was given political asylum in the U.S.

Special text on page 44

Yellow text: The purpose of homeschooling is to develop each child’s unique skills and interests and encourage them as much as possible. It’s the total opposite to indoctrination and isolation.

Lower right corner:

FACTS. Homeschooling in Sweden:

According to the new education code, homeschooling is only permitted by exception, mostly in the lower grades. To get permission requires an extenuating circumstance, e.g. if the child lives in an isolated area or requires special care. The permission is granted at the city level.

Permission may also be granted if the child, for example, participates in the filming of a movie. But parents do not have a right to homeschool on religious or philosophical grounds.

Earlier rules were more generous, and families who want to continue homeschooling have, for example, moved to the island of Åland to continue to do so. Other families have been charged with crimes against the compulsory education law and pay fines every day the child does not attend school. The fines can exceed 100,000 kroner per year.

Special text on page 45

“The heart of every homeschooling family is the library,” explains Lisa Angerstig. The importance of reading is agreed on no matter the backgrounds or educational philosophies.

Special text on page 47

Interview with Michael P. Donnelly

Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) was founded in 1983 by conservative lawyer Michael Farris and works with information about homeschooling and gives legal advice to people who homeschool. The Christian organization operates in the small town of Purcellville, Virginia, where Farris also founded Patrick Henry College, a university where the majority of the students are homeschooled. But HSLDA not only watches the homeschool debate in the U.S. Now even Sweden has appeared on the radar.

“Do we have contact with Sweden? I talk to Swedish families at least once per week. Are you familiar with the Dominic Johansson case (Neo editor’s note: see separate fact insert). We are one of his representatives,” explains Michael P. Donnelly from HSLDA. “We are and have been in contact with many Swedish families. Sometimes regarding legal advice, sometimes for support. A few times we’ve helped out financially.”

“Have you given money to Swedish families?”

“Your tax system doesn’t exactly make it easy for families who want to homeschool.”

“When did Sweden become of interest to your organization?”

“I was put in charge of international contacts at HSLDA about 2.5 years ago, and back then I already noticed that there were Swedish families in need of legal advice. Then things really picked up speed when the new education code was implemented. The homeschooling environment has radically worsened in Sweden, unfortunately.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“It’s hard to say, but politicians who want to outlaw homeschooling are often arrogant. They want to prove that the government knows best. It’s a totalitarian way of thinking and very anti-intellectual. It ignores all research that shows the advantages of homeschooling from an academic and social perspective.

“Does Sweden follow an international trend?”

“No, we have not seen any international trend outlawing homeschooling. On the contrary, we’ve noticed increased interest and acceptance in many countries. It seems Sweden has looked closely at Germany in regards to this issue, and that’s most unfortunate, since the German government virtually persecutes homeschooling families. In both Norway and Finland, homeschooling is protected by law, and there’s minimal political resistance. Even in Russia there’s legal protection for homeschoolers. It seems strange to say that the Russian government defends the individual’s rights better than the Swedish government, but that’s how it is in this issue.”

“The debate about homeschooling often deals with the child’s right to an education and that they are denied that if homeschooling is allowed. Isn’t the right to an education an important issue to care about?”

“Children have the right to an education, there’s no doubt about that, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. But the issue is the right to an education, not ‘the right to attend a government-controlled school.’ Of course children need an education, but why can’t it take place in the home? Why not respect a family’s right to live out its values based on its religious or political views? We don’t talk much about that. If you interpret a child’s right to an education as having to attend a school, then you choose to ignore the individual’s foundational rights to form their own family life. If children are abused, the government needs to step in, but to say that children are abused because of homeschooling? That’s absurd.”

“What’s HSLDA’s strategy?”

“It depends what state or country we’re dealing with. Is the law poorly written and supported? If so, we focus our energy on the courts; we have fantastic lawyers who have won many important cases. If we can’t win in court, we go back to the lawmakers and apply pressure against the politicians and workers. If that doesn’t work, we focus on informing the public about what homeschooling really is. With the Swedish families it’s mostly about appeals. Unfortunately, there seems to be political agreement to oppress the minority who wants to homeschool their children.”

“How far are you willing to go legally regarding Swedish families wanting to homeschool?”

“We will assist with legal help as long as there’s an authority to appeal to. Unfortunately, so far Strasbourg [European Court for human rights] has not shown any willingness to step up and give homeschooling families the protection they are entitled to. So some Swedish families have found no other way out than to emigrate.”

“To the U.S.?”

“We are not recruiting Swedes to move to the U.S., but if a family would like to, we’re prepared to help. A German family received political asylum in the U.S. on the grounds that they were not guaranteed the right to homeschool in Germany. I believe Swedish families would have a good chance of also receiving such asylum. When Swedes ask for advice on where to move, we usually recommend Finland, Norway or Denmark.”

Interview by Anders Ronmark

Photo caption: Michael P. Donnelly is a lawyer responsible for international relations at Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Virginia. He graduated law school at Boston University and passed the bar exam. He was earlier an officer in the U.S. Army. He and his wife homeschool their seven children.

Lower right corner:

FACTS. Dominic Johansson:

On June 25, 2009, Dominic Johansson was taken into custody by the police at Arlanda Airport. The Social Services on Gotland felt that Dominic was abused and had among other things been denied vaccinations and dental care. Early on it was said that Dominic was taken into custody because of his being homeschooled. That has later been denied by politicians and social services, but international organizations involved with homeschooling continue to be legally engaged to get the Johansson family reunited. The custody was deemed appropriate according to the county and administrative courts, but has been appealed to the European Court concerning the parents’ right to choose the school. Dominic currently resides in a family home on Gotland.