One triumph for US education during the past 30 years has been a turnaround by states to let parents home-school their children. As many as 1 in 25 school-age kids now are taught around the proverbial kitchen table. But the triumph is a shaky one, as a recent court ruling proves.
Last month, a three-judge panel in California ruled that only parents with state-recognized teaching credentials can educate their children at home. Otherwise, the parents are criminals and, as the court wrote, their children will not learn "loyalty to the state."
The ruling, which now turns some 166,000 of the state's home-schooled children into truants, may be overturned on appeal. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has promised to protect home-schoolers, saying correctly, "Parents should not be penalized for acting in the best interests of their children's education." The state legislature should quickly follow his lead.
But this ruling may have ripple effects. In many states, home-schoolers must ensure that lawmakers – under pressure from turf-protecting teacher unions – don't put onerous rules on parents. This decision could provide fresh ammunition for harsh controls.
Fortunately, such efforts have largely failed to roll back a movement that has grown with the rise of conservative Christians and others who prefer home schooling, and with the Internet's ability to bring the best teaching tools into the home. Parents are now organized into virtual communities for mutual educational support.
Still, as the California case makes clear, a right to home school remains vulnerable to political interpretation. Rules and enforcement are sometimes murky, with education officials uneven in their demands. At the least, home schooling should fulfill society's interest in compulsory education up to a certain age, with students asked to provide a level of minimal educational competency.
But often that demand goes too far, as when it requires parents to stick closely to a state's educational curriculum or to state tests based on that curriculum. And until states show that public-school teachers can achieve results that taxpayers expect for their dollars, it is hypocritical to demand professional teaching credentials of home-schooling parents.
The record of home-schooled students – such as the many winners of spelling bees – show parents have the devotion and means for high standards.
At the national level, President Bush has guarded the interests of home-schoolers, even under his No Child Left Behind law that requires testing in – only – public schools. But it's likely that a White House win by either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton – who would rely on teachers' unions for money and votes – could lead to fresh assaults.
Ultimately, challenges to home-schooling are up against US Supreme Court rulings that support a parent's primary role in the upbringing of a child and argue against treating children as mere creatures of government.
Home-school parents are better equipped than ever with new learning tools such as the Internet to provide broad-based education. States and communities themselves have diverse standards to achieve education excellence. They should allow parents to do the same, while fixing their own schoolhouse first.