Home schoolers face investigation, harassment from government officials

Critics say home schoolers have academic deficiencies

While home schooling has become a familiar feature of the national educational landscape over the past several decades, it still meets with a substantial amount of persecution and harassment, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). Recent years have seen a number of instances in which Michigan home schoolers were harassed by public school administrators, local police, and even other families in their neighborhoods or communities.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimates that between 700,000 and 1.25 million children are currently home schooled in the United States. The Michigan State Department of Education says almost 2,000 home schoolers reported to the state last year, a figure that is almost certainly low given the NCES figures.

Government figures on home school families are questionable because of the way they are reported. Michigan law allows parents two options: to operate as a “nonpublic school” and submit enrollment figures every year, or to operate a home-school education program without reporting to the state. Therefore, the actual number of home school families is likely much higher than state estimates.

Michael Smith, president of the HSLDA, says that a perceived loss of money is why public school officials consider home schooling to “threaten the very existence of public education.” Local school districts lose $6,700 for each student who leaves to be home schooled.

On the other hand, home school students save the state of Michigan money, since they pay taxes earmarked for education, yet they do not send their children to public school. If 2,000 home schooled children in Michigan enrolled in public school this fall, the state would be obligated to pay $13.4 million more per year, or the basic state foundation grant of $6,700 for each student to the local school districts.

Smith believes that it is a mistake to underestimate the level of animosity home schooling inspires among some public school advocates. The following incidents, reported by the HSLDA, have been substantiated in police and news reports—but because many families fear further harassment, the parties involved will not be named.

In the fall of 2001, the district attorney for Grand Traverse County threatened a Traverse City family with legal action after they withdrew their children from public school. Communication from the attorney stated that it was evident the family was not teaching according to the state’s requirements. Later that year, the same family was visited by a police officer who insisted that the family show him their curriculum. The family refused. The officer warned the parents that he would seek an arrest warrant, and that they would have to serve 90 days in jail if they continued to disobey the district attorney. The HSLDA told the district attorney in writing that this behavior was a violation of the family’s rights, and he subsequently dropped the case.

A similar incident occurred in Allegan County last September when a police officer arrived at a home schooling family’s residence, demanding to see the curriculum. The mother provided the officer with a copy, which he deemed to be “fine.” Nonetheless, the officer reprimanded the mother for not being qualified to teach, to which the mother correctly responded that home schooling parents do not have to be state-certified. The officer replied that during the previous year, the county had arrested “all kinds of home schoolers.” The officer left after warning the mother that he would seek an arrest warrant.

An exceptional case is that of a home schooled girl in Hanover who checked her mailbox last year and found a packet of letters from third graders at her local public school. The letters described what public school was like and expressed sympathy for the girl because she lacked classmates and a traditional school setting. It was later discovered that the students had been instructed by their teacher to write the letters in order to leave a negative impression of home schooling on her students.

According to the HSLDA, this sort of harassment occurs in all states whether home school regulations are absent or extremely restrictive. The HSLDA considers Michigan to be a very low regulation state because the state has a strong parental rights law. “It is the natural, fundamental right of parents and legal guardians to determine and direct the care, teaching, and education of their children,” according to the Michigan Compiled Laws Annotated (MCLA) Section 380.10. Other states require high levels of regulations that must be followed prior to home schooling children.

Tennessee, for example, requires parents to notify the school district if they want to withdraw their children from public schools. When a school bus driver in Washington County went to obtain the necessary forms from her supervisor, he became angry at her decision. The next day, she received a notice informing her that she had been fired, giving no reason for her termination. The HSLDA filed a lawsuit against the county and the woman received $16,500 as settlement for unlawful termination.

California has between four and six high-profile home school harassment cases each year, according to Cathy Cuthbert, editor of The School Liberator, an online newsletter. A school district in San Leandro, for example, decided it would begin to consider home schooled children as truant—and began investigating all home schooling families in that area on the basis of this unwritten district policy. The Hayward (Calif.) Daily Review reported in February 2000 that one home schooling mother in San Leandro was visited by a police officer who pepper-sprayed and arrested her in front of her daughter. Following the incident, the woman’s family left town, Cuthbert says, and neither the Daily Review nor the California Homeschool Network has been able to find the family.

Since 1995, as many as 120 students annually from Nine River Falls High School in Washington state have harassed a local home-schooling family by yelling obscenities, breaking bottles on their property, and threatening to riot. Even a small bomb was exploded on the property, leaving a one-foot-deep crater in the family’s yard. The homeowner once attempted to scare the crowd away with a shotgun and was later threatened with a charge of illegally brandishing a weapon. The local police department sends only two officers each year to break up the mob. The family maintains a website featuring their own commentary, comments from the community, court news, and published newspaper articles about their ordeals. Local and web-based news organizations, such as Lewis News (see www.lewisnews.com) also have published stories and commentaries about the harassment by both the family and members of the community.

“The harassment has decreased in terms of the percentage of home schoolers that are challenged regarding their practices—but because of the larger number of home schoolers, we deal with more contacts,” remarks Smith.
Cuthbert fears that ongoing harassment could be keeping people from starting home schools. “I’m sure it has a chilling effect on people who are considering home schooling,” comments Cuthbert.

Besides the threats and harassment home school families face, they also cope with criticisms of home schooling teaching practices. For example, David Stewart, director of Hillsdale College’s honors program, told the Detroit Free Press that home schooled children are typically deficient in science education. “I can generally count on them for having almost no science and virtually no lab science,” he notes.

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest school employee union, believes that these educational deficiencies stem from a lack of professional training on the part of the home school parent/teacher. NEA spokesman Charles Erickson told ABC News that teaching is “just like any other profession—you want to get someone who’s been taught to do it, so everyone has the same opportunity to learn under a qualified professional.”

Nevertheless, despite these threats and harassment, home schooling continues to thrive. According to the Home School Legal Defense Association, it is currently growing across the nation at rates of anywhere from 7 to 15 percent per year.