November 14, 2005

There’s No Place Like Home

Much concern has been expressed by conservative groups across the nation over a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco. In the case of “Fields v. Palmdale School District,” Circuit Judge Reinhardt, writing for the court, ruled against the fundamental constitutional right of parents to direct the upbringing and the education of their children.

The statement in the court’s opinion that has caused the most reaction is as follows: “[We] hold that there is no fundamental right of parents to be the exclusive provider of information regarding sexual matters to their children, either independent of their right to direct the upbringing and education of their children or encompassed by it.”

We believe this statement, if considered in isolation, violates precedents enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the rights of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children. Constitutional rights should certainly encompass the right of parents to determine what kind of information is communicated to their children on the subject of sex.

However, to properly evaluate the judge’s statement, it must be considered within the context of the actual case that was before the court. The plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit were parents of children enrolled in the Palmdale School District in southern California. Their children were in the first, third and fifth grades. The children were administered a survey for the purposes of identifying “psychological barriers to learning.” The survey was composed of 79 questions, some of which involved sexual topics that would be considered abusive by most parents if asked by a non-parent. Several of the questions in the survey exposed the children to highly objectionable ideas and behaviors that had never before occurred to them. The announced purpose of the survey was to establish a community baseline measure of children’s exposure to early trauma (for example, violence). It turns out that the real trauma was caused by the questions themselves. The parents sued to recover damages for the trauma experienced by their children and the parents lost.

A complicating factor in the case is that the students who participated in this survey did so after their parents signed a letter of permission. However, according to the letter informing the parents of the survey and seeking their consent, it did not explicitly state that some questions would involve sexual topics. The school district attorney even indicated that the school district was not aware of the full extent of the sexual nature of the questions. Consequently, parents based their decision about their child’s involvement on the following statement from the school district: “I understand answering questions may make my child feel uncomfortable. If this occurs, then [. . .] the research study coordinator, will assist us in locating a therapist for further psychological help if necessary.”

Unfortunately, in the context of a public school setting, there are many court decisions that support Judge Reinhardt’s opinion. The court explained that the legitimate function of public school exceeds simply teaching academic courses to students. Judge Reinhardt concluded that the U.S Supreme Court has said: “Education serves higher civic and social functions, including the rearing of children into healthy, productive and responsible adults and the cultivation of talented and qualified leaders of diverse backgrounds.” Grutter v. Bolinger, 539 US 306 (2003).

Citing precedent from other courts, the Ninth Circuit Court argued that parents of public school students do not have a fundamental right to object to a public school uniform policy; a community service requirement for high school students; exemption of their children from certain reading programs the parents find objectionable; or from an assembly program that includes sexually explicit topics.

At this point, some people may be tempted to conclude the following, “My children are not enrolled in a public school. I’m teaching them at home. How does this decision affect me?” Unfortunately, this decision will eventually have an effect on private schools, including homeschools. It shows a clear shift from trusting parents to raise their children to having the state take more responsibility. State involvement leads to a reduction in parental freedoms. Although the court clearly recognizes the right of parents to choose private education over public education, the ruling sets the stage for possible further regulation of private and homeschools, including the mandating of course content. Determining curriculum is currently considered to be a private school and/or parental prerogative, but it may not always be this way.

There is little doubt that Judge Reinhardt’s alarming statement usurping the right of parents to control information being provided to their children will be used by those that assert that homeschools and private schools have too much autonomy. They will argue that children are being limited to only the information provided by their parents and that this is not in the best interest of society. Opponents often say that homeschooled children not being exposed to diverse beliefs and opinions. Usually opponents target Christian parents for “indoctrinating” their children with a Biblical worldview.

Professor Robert Reich, of the Department of Political Science at Stanford University, in a report entitled, “Testing the boundaries of parental authority over education: the case of homeschooling,” concluded that while the state should not ban homeschooling, it must nevertheless regulate its practice with vigilance. Professor Reich asserts that children, as a matter of justice, should be able to choose their own values, beliefs, pursue an occupation, and endorse traditions that are different from those of their parents. Since the parents may be opposed to both alternative views and decisions made by their children, the state must ensure that the child has the opportunity to make these choices. Reich’s proposed manner of regulation is to require periodic assessments that would measure homeschoolers’ success in examining and reflecting upon diverse worldviews. The only fair way to assess success in learning different worldviews is to require the student to be taught these diverse worldviews.

How could this infringement take place? Currently, homeschoolers have much autonomy, regarding the content of education. Legislation could be introduced to require certain content to be taught. Material that is objectionable to parents, including the teaching of evolution for science, sex education for health, and homosexuality as an alternate lifestyle for social studies, will almost certainly be included since this type of information is found in the public school curriculum.

Should this occur, partnership of the state and local support groups with HSLDA will be critical. Our members, and homeschoolers throughout the states, will be the primary defense against this type of legislation. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that you continue to support your state and local support groups, and continue your partnership with HSLDA so a viable defense can be mustered as we did with H.R. 6 in 1994.

Finally, avoid any public-school-at-home program. These are commonly called charter schools or virtual charter schools, and are making great headway into the homeschool community. The control of that child’s education is subject to the control of the charter school administration. The child schooled at home in a publicly-funded program can be subject to the same social engineering that is taking place in public schools all across the country, including addressing the so-called psychological health of the child.

The moral of the story is that “There is no place like home” when it comes to education. You’ve made the best choice for your family and your children. Society is going in a different direction. Not only must we continue to teach our children at home privately, but we must be prepared to meet the challenges to this choice in the future. It is foolhardy to assume that we will always be left alone to freely educate our children.

The case of “Fields v. Palmdale School District” should reinforce your wise decision to make your home the place where God’s love in you and your children’s life may rule.

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