Does the state have a right to monitor?

Babette Hankin of Croyden, Pa., likes to show off her home-schooling program. Not only do her seven children stay occupied all day, but the five of school age seem to thrive in her regimented rotation covering earth science, reading, math, and even piano practice.

Yet despite pride in the program, Mrs. Hankin is suing the Bristol Township School District for requiring a yearly review. At dispute is the age-old but not yet settled question of who owns the children, and who therefore should oversee their education - the parents, the state, or God?

"We have a religious obligation to not have anything to do with the ungodly public school system," says Hankin, a Chris-tian with ties to the Free Presbyterian denomination. "These children are not Caesar's. They belong to God ... My husband is the one God put in charge of these children, and for him to have to surrender that authority ... is wrong."

Hankin's is one of two landmark cases pending in Pennsylvania courts. In each, home-schooling families are using a new religious freedom law to fight what they see as state interference. Twelve states have recently passed similar laws, putting a potentially powerful tool in the hands of those who educate the nation's 1.1 million home-schooled children.

Should plaintiffs win exemptions from reporting requirements on religious grounds, the verdicts could put a chink in the armor of an understanding, more than a century old, of children as a shared responsibility of parents and the state. Legal experts say a blanket overhaul of the principle is unlikely, but some widely watched fine-tuning of the important "ownership" question could be in store.

"The claim that states have no authority whatsoever over the education of a child just doesn't wash," said Derek Davis, director of the Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. "The Biblical basis doesn't negate the role the state might have."

Responsibility for a child's education has long been seen as a shared responsibility, according to Robert Pazmino, professor of Christian education at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Mass. In colonial times, parents shared the responsibility with the church, a concept manifest today in baptism when parents and congregation pledge to raise a child together in the faith.

With the rapid influx of immigrants in the 19th century, government gained more oversight authority to ensure children got an education in English that parents couldn't always provide. Today, Pazmino says, the shared responsibility between parents and state also helps prevent abusive situations at home.

Nevertheless, an increasing number of parents are opting out of public and even private schools. The number of children being home-schooled at least part time grew by 250,000 between 1999 and 2003, according to the US Department of Education. In citing their reasons, 30 percent of parents said it was to "provide religious or moral instruction."

Such a religious mission is fine, says Dennis Spinella, assistant superintendent of Bristol Township. Nevertheless, he adds, state law requires the superintendent's office to monitor reports on the progress of children schooled at home, and he is just following the law.

"Someone has to monitor," Spinella says. "Otherwise, you'd have a plethora of kids at home, and doing what?"

Hankin said her family would accept monitoring by a Christian school, rather than by the public school district, should the court permit such a compromise.

To submit to the school district, she said, would violate a scriptural mandate not to mix the holy with the unholy (II Corinthians 6:17) and would be akin to "seeking approval from McDonald's for a nutrition program."

But for Maryalice Newborn, a home-schooling mother of five in the Western Pennsylvania town of Export, such a compromise would be inadequate to fulfill the religious principle at stake in her suit.

"Parents are to have the final authority over children ... [and] education is a fundamental right of parents," Newborn said. "But here, we are guilty [of not educating] until we prove our innocence."

The recent spate of Religious Freedom Protection Acts passed by state legislatures began after the US Supreme Court struck down a similar federal law in 1997. Across the 50 states, religious freedom laws and home-schooling requirements vary. Therefore, the ruling in these cases may or may not impact other states. If the Hankins lose, they say they might move across the border to New Jersey, where school districts don't approve home-schooling plans.

To win the suit, the district must show that it has a compelling interest in maintaining its current requirements and that these requirements are minimally burdensome, says Jim Mason, attorney for the plaintiff. Yet he still intends to make the case on the grounds that government is coercing these families to sin and is violating their free religious practice.

"They feel called by God to educate their own children according to Biblical principles," says Mason, "and one of those principles is that they not submit this to a governmental authority."

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