Homeschool Revolt

Parents resist regulation.


Pennsylvania's Religious Freedom Protection Act says state agencies may not "compel conduct or expression which violates a specific tenet of a person's religious faith." Four families–the Newborn, Hankin, Prevish, and Combs clans–insist that the state's homeschooling regulations do just that. As Darrell Combs, a minister, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Nowhere in scripture is authority for education given over to…government….The Bible calls us directly to educate our children."

The families claim some of the state's requirements for homeschoolers–including filing affidavits with the school district outlining their curriculum and goals, filing daily logs of what they teach their kids, and having an outsider evaluate their teaching and interview the kids–interfere with their religious duties toward their children. They say the regulations violate due process, because the enforcers–local school superintendents–stand to gain financially by sending kids back to the public schools. (More students mean more funding.)

They also argue that the rules violate the First Amendment. Parents have to file an affidavit stating their course objectives before they can begin instructing their children. This, the families claim, means they have to get the state's approval before engaging in the speech act of teaching their own kids.

The suits are being argued with the help of the Home School Legal Defense Association, which lobbies for homeschoolers and assists them in court. Association attorney Darren Jones says Pennsylvania's homeschooling rules are among the most restrictive in the country, noting that they pose particular problems for adherents of "child-directed education." That approach recommends that teaching follow the child's interests, making it difficult to file curricula in advance.

None of the cases has been tried yet, and it's far from certain that they will succeed. While the argument that state interference in the parent-child educational relationship can violate a serious Christian's religious beliefs might seem convincing, courts often have been loath to take guarantees of freedom at face value when they interfere with what the state thinks of as a compelling interest, or even a reasonable restriction. Despite the Supreme Court's 1925 decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, which declared that "fundamental liberty…excludes any general power of the State to…forc[e] [children]…to accept instruction from public teachers only," states still argue that they have a legitimate interest in maintaining at least some control over kids outside the public schools.

If any of the families do win, however, the victory could alter homeschooling regulations not just in Pennsylvania but in at least four other states with laws similar to the Religious Freedom Protection Act.