Fifteen years later, home-school parents say legal battle was worth it

DeJonge case allowed parents to home-school without certification

Mark and Chris DeJong
Mark and Chris DeJonge built a home recently in Shelbyville in rural western Michigan, where they continue to teach their younger children. The couple was happy to retire from the public eye after a 10-year legal battle over requiring home-schoolers to provide certified teachers as instructors.

Chris DeJonge was in her second week of homeschooling when the knock on the door came. She opened it to find two employees from the local office of the Michigan Department of Social Services (now the Department of Human Services), who informed her that her children were truants and that she and her husband were breaking the law by teaching them at home.

The officer already knew her children’s names and ages, DeJonge said, a detail she and her husband, Mark, found both revealing and worrisome. Barely into their first year of homeschooling, someone had apparently reported them to the authorities.

What the DeJonges didn’t know in that autumn of 1984 was that, over the next 10 years, their case would work its way from the local district court through the appellate system and eventually to the Michigan Supreme Court, where a 4-3 decision in their favor would become a landmark in Michigan home-school law.

Nearly 15 years to the day after that ruling, the DeJonges spent a recent Saturday morning talking to Michigan Education Report about their years in and out of the legal system. Now residents of Shelbyville in rural western Michigan, Mark DeJonge is a commercial construction manager and Chris DeJonge is completing another year of teaching her five youngest children. The couple has 10 children and 16 grandchildren in all.

"They were really intimidating," Chris DeJonge said of her first contact with the authorities. Letter after letter came during the next 12 months, advising the couple that they could be arrested. At the time, state law said that parents who conducted home education for their children had to provide instructors certified by the state.

But the DeJonges believed then — and still do — that the certification requirement violated their right to freely exercise their religion under the First Amendment.

"We were in the Lord’s will. We were going to proceed," Mark DeJonge said. "If we didn’t home-school in Michigan, we’d have left Michigan."

Other Michigan parents opposed the law, too, and quietly taught their children at home, trying not to draw attention to themselves.

"If you brought up home-school, people would say, ‘What’s that?’" Chris DeJonge said. "Of course, that doesn’t happen now."

"We didn’t have a support group at that time," her husband added. "It was pretty much underground. … But we got connected slowly, family to family."

The DeJonges were formally charged and convicted of criminal truancy in Ottawa County District Court in 1985, but were granted a "stay of sentence" until their appeals were concluded. During the appeal process they agreed to have their children tested and to provide the results, something they had never contested.

Four years later, the state Court of Appeals affirmed the original ruling. The DeJonges, represented by the Home School Legal Defense Association, then appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1989, which remanded the case to the appellate court, asking it to reconsider its ruling in view of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding individual exemptions from general laws for religious purposes — in that case the use of peyote.

In 1991, the appellate court reaffirmed its earlier decision. The following summer the state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and in spring of 1993 ruled in the DeJonges’ favor. In the written opinion, the justices agreed that the state has a compelling interest in ensuring the adequate education of children, but said it had failed to prove that the certification requirement was necessary to meet that goal.

"In sum, the state has failed to provide one scintilla of evidence that the DeJonge children have suffered for the want of certified teachers," the opinion stated.

"We made court appearances nine times," Mark DeJonge said of the 10-year stretch. "It was a pretty good educational experience for our children."

The Home School Legal Defense Association refers to the DeJonge case as a landmark in home-school law. In the wake of that case and others, state lawmakers adopted legislation providing that, "It is the natural, fundamental right of parents and legal guardians to determine and direct the care, teaching, and education of their children."

Michigan law continues to require all children to attend school from age 6 to 16. However, it provides two options for home-school families. One states that a child is not required to attend public school if the parent is providing at home an "organized educational program" with instruction in core content areas. Teacher certification is not required in cases in which it would violate a family’s religious convictions.

The second option allows parents to register their home program as a nonpublic school, a choice that generally requires more reporting of information to the Michigan Department of Education.

The DeJonges continued to raise their growing family and to teach their children at home throughout their case, hearing from both supporters and detractors by phone, by mail and through the grapevine. Encouraging letters came in from across the United States, Mark DeJonge said, as home-school parents in other regions went through their own struggles.

"We saw we weren’t in it alone," he said. But it wasn’t outside support that kept them from becoming discouraged, he and his wife said. It was the results they saw in their children.

"Home-school was such a positive thing," Chris DeJonge said. "When we saw our children learning, and how well they did, it confirmed it."

On the day they learned about the Supreme Court decision, Mark DeJonge was cultivating nursery trees on their farm and Chris was in the house. The children took to their bikes and pedaled two miles to tell their father the news.

"We’re glad we went through it," Chris DeJonge said. "We grew as a family and we grew as a couple."

The family was happy to retire from the public eye when the case was resolved, Mark DeJonge said. On this particular sunny morning, he and his children were at work laying out pipe for an irrigation system in the side yard. Soon it will be time to plant the large garden, where the raspberry plants already are a bushy green.

Ottawa County Prosecutor Ronald J. Frantz said his office recognized "very significant issues" in the DeJonge case and looked to the courts for clarification on the issues of validating religious beliefs and granting exemptions based on those beliefs.

"It’s a weighing of the nature of the religious belief against the interest of the state," said Frantz, who was not prosecutor at the time the original charges were filed. "We don’t have a bias against home-school."

Frantz pointed out that the law still requires teacher certification unless the home-school parent objects on religious grounds. How the courts would treat a home-school parent without such religious convictions is a different question, he said, adding that he is not aware of any such case being filed.

Retired state Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Levin, one of the four who voted in favor of the DeJonges, told Michigan Education Report that he doesn’t remember much about the case today. HSLDA attorneys have said they were told that Levin had switched his vote at the last minute, giving the DeJonges the victory. Levin doesn’t recall that, he said in a telephone interview, but he does remember how unlikely it was for a home-school case to reach the highest court in Michigan.

"It’s rarely litigated at that level," he said.

In general, he continued, "I think there are certain things only government can do, but there are other things government should stay out of."

Home-school belongs in the latter category, he said, if children are being educated well.

By coincidence, Levin said, shortly before the interview with Michigan Education Report he had watched an episode of the HBO miniseries about the lives of John and Abigail Adams and their son, John Quincy Adams, who was educated at home. By the age of 11 the youth began to accompany his father on diplomatic missions and, at 14, he served as secretary and interpreter for a diplomatic mission to Russia.

"Home-school has a very long and honorable tradition," Levin said.

Today there are varying estimates on the number of home-schooled children in Michigan. The number has been put any anywhere from 2,000 to 100,000, based on enrollment in home-school associations, number of parents who voluntarily report their enrollment to the state and calculations done by subtracting public and private school enrollment from census figures. Whatever the number, home-schoolers can hardly be considered underground any more. Support groups meet in every major Michigan city; colleges and universities readily accept home-school graduates; textbook companies offer books and supplies aimed at the home-school market; and home-school associations organize their own sport and academic leagues.

In West Michigan, considered a home-school stronghold in the state, Frantz said that, "People are discussing is more freely." Frantz himself sits on the board of a private Christian high school that enrolls former home-schoolers, he said.

Still, the HSLDA continues to send "alerts" to Michigan parents about any legislation it believes could affect them, most recently House Bill 5912. Introduced by Rep. Brenda Clack, D-Flint, the bill would require all home-schoolers to register annually with their local conventional public school superintendent. The bill’s sponsors said that registration would help public school districts tackle truancy problems — cases in which dropouts say they are being home-schooled but are not. Opponents of the bill said one such requirement of home-schoolers could easily lead to more.

Ten other states are on HSLDA "alert," including California, where home-school parents were startled by an appellate court decision in February that would have required them to have teaching credentials. The court vacated its own decision in that case and will rehear the matter this summer. Legislation proposed in Washington, D.C., would require home-school parents to submit portfolios of their children’s work.

The tension between competing forms of education is not necessarily a bad thing, Mark DeJonge said.

Though Michigan home-schoolers enjoy what HSLDA calls some of the most favorable laws in the country, "It could be too easy, in a sense," he said, "if those rights are taken for granted. We oughtn’t to get complacent and lazy."

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Lorie Shane is the managing editor of the Michigan Education Report, the Mackinac Center’s education policy journal. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that Michigan Education Report is properly cited.