On its face, House Bill 5912 may seem harmless enough to the average observer. The legislation, introduced in March by Rep. Brenda Clack, D-Flint, requires parents to register their home-schooled children with local public school authorities. The problem, though, may be the bill’s dangerous subtext.
Certainly, if the reasoning behind a recent California court ruling in the Rachel L. et al. case finds its way east, there is cause for concern. In late February, the California 2nd District Court of Appeals ruled that all California home-school students must be taught by certified instructors. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, representatives of the California Teachers Association went on record praising the decision. Fortunately, the court has agreed to rehear the case; pending that reconsideration, the court's previous ruling has been vacated.
Although the final ruling will not be binding in Michigan, the case may still be relevant here. Requiring home-school students to have certified teachers and mandating registration are part of a slippery slope of state regulatory interference in home education. First, state officials may force home schooling parents to register their children. Next, officials may mandate that home schools use certified teachers. Then, home-schoolers may be required to report the number of days and hours spent on each subject, then adopt a required curriculum and so on. The possible areas for state regulation of home-schoolers are endless.
Such misguided policies would affect an increasing number of Michigan families. Michigan has a growing population of home-schooled students. According to a 2006 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 1.1 million students were home-schooled nationally in 2003. Researchers at Michigan State University estimated the number of home-school students in Michigan at 100,000, or 5 percent of the state’s students in 2003.
The home-school movement continues to grow in response to perceived failures of the public schools to meet individual student needs. Concerns over safety and inadequate academic performance figure prominently among reasons for choosing to home-school. Parents also choose this option when they wish to introduce religious instruction into the curriculum.
According to the Home School Legal Defense Association, great variability exists in levels of restrictiveness across state regulations regarding home schooling. In Michigan, the law is relatively unrestrictive. For example, if parents elect to home-school without registering as a nonpublic school, they are free to choose any instructor for their children.
The reason that home-school instructors do not need to be certified is at the heart of the choice to home-school: Parents are seeking an alternative educational environment for their children. Of course, the strongest argument against the requirement that home-school instructors be certified is that parents, not the state, have the fundamental right to look after the welfare and rearing of their own children.
These assertions should not be misconstrued to mean that the state should have no role in ensuring the health, safety and welfare of children, as long as agencies do not abuse their powers. One can envision bad home-school scenarios where children fail to learn or experience neglect. In fact, existing laws already provide structures to look after the health and safety of children to prevent their abuse. Moreover, it is dubious for the state to show undue concern over home schooling when it has failed to guarantee safety and educational quality in public schools.
The reality is that most home schooling parents make responsible choices concerning their children’s education. If they are incapable of teaching their children a certain subject, they find a tutor who can. As reported in Michigan Education Report, many home schooling families are using college programs. In fact, it is routine for home-school parents to seek high-quality academic and social outlets for their children. It is not an accident that home-schooled students are disproportionately represented as winners of chess tournaments, spelling bees and geography contests.
Requiring home schooling parents to register their children with local districts may seem harmless even to those amenable to home schooling, but anyone interested in preserving parental rights should be vigilant. Though registering home-schooled students may seem like merely a hassle to many Michigan residents, it may well be the first step down the wrong path.
Marc Holley is a doctoral fellow in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and an adjunct fellow with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.