When divorced parents disagree on whether a child should be home-schooled, how should courts weigh the issues?
It’s a difficult job, especially when part of the dispute is over the religious views that one parent is imparting to the child.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday in a case that pits a mother’s desire to continue home-schooling her daughter against a father’s concerns that the religion-based home-school environment is not giving her broad enough exposure to other ideas and life skills.
In 2009, a trial court ordered Amanda Kurowski to attend public school after she had been home-schooled by her mother, Brenda Voydatch, through the fourth grade. Ms. Voydatch, whom 11-year-old Amanda has lived with primarily since an infant, appealed that ruling.
Religious groups and those supporting home schooling are watching the case closely.
“If the trial court’s unqualified opinion were allowed to stand ... this case could become a model for other courts around the state to follow. This result would harm homeschoolers across the state and potentially across the nation,” argues an amicus brief submitted on behalf of Voydatch by the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va., and several other groups.
Martin Kurowski, Amanda’s father, argued before the trial court that the type of education she was receiving at home was socially isolating, not giving her the opportunity to work in diverse groups and confront other opinions. He also raised concerns that she was being taught that women should be submissive. He recalled one conversation with Amanda in which she said her mother told her that Hillary Rodham Clinton was a sorcerer and that a woman can’t be president.
Voydatch used educational materials from Bob Jones University, a fundamental Christian college Greenville, S.C., but she also sent her daughter to classes such as art and gym at the public school in Meredith, N.H., the Associated Press reports.
The trial court’s decision was based in part on reports from Amanda’s guardian ad litem, who recommended she attend public school.
Home schooling is often a matter of dispute between separated parents, says Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Ore. He has served as a witness in such cases, and in his view, “the vast majority of guardians ad litem are biased clearly in favor of institutional public schooling.”
Judges often seem biased, too, Mr. Ray says, and the burden of proof is usually placed “on the parent who thinks home schooling is best for the child.”
Home-schooled children do as well as, or better than, their peers, says Ray, citing research. “There should be a level playing field for all legal forms of education,” he says.
In the New Hampshire case, one issue the high court will have to interpret is whether the original parenting plan approved Amanda’s home schooling in the first place. If so, Voydatch argues, Mr. Kurowski should have had to prove that Amanda was being harmed in order for the court to modify the plan (because of requirements outlined in a 2009 New Hampshire Supreme Court ruling known as Muchmore).
If the five-justice panel decides the parenting plan was ambiguous on the issue of education, then a ruling in favor of public-school attendance could be made simply by finding that it is in Amanda’s best interests.
Even under that lower burden of proof, Voydatch argues, the trial court did not make a sufficient case that public school was best for Amanda.
Moreover, she and her supporters say, the basis of the father’s and the guardian ad litem’s concerns are a prejudiced view of her religion. They argue that Amanda did well both academically and socially and that her father even took her to his Episcopal church at times without a problem.
“The court’s ruling puts all New Hampshire parents and children of faith at risk of losing their constitutional rights whenever one parent is simply willing to claim that a former spouse is too religiously rigid, and that rigidity affects the first parent’s relationship with their child,” says Voydatch’s brief, submitted before oral arguments Thursday.
Is home schooling a constitutional right? Some members of the five-justice panel probed that issue Thursday during the 15 minutes allotted to Voydatch’s lawyer, John Simmons. If so, one justice questioned rhetorically, then won’t the parent who wants to home-school always win in such disputes?
Mr. Simmons argued that the court could have addressed Kurowski’s concerns without disrupting the longstanding home-schooling practice, such as requiring more external activities or more visitation time for father and daughter.
Kurowski’s lawyer, Joshua Gordon, argued that the case is not a constitutional issue, but simply a parental disagreement. Because the parents couldn’t agree on a parochial-school option, public school was an “agnostic alternative,” Mr. Gordon said.
When one parent wants to broaden the horizons of the child, that parent’s rights are at stake as well, not just the religious parent’s rights, Gordon told reporters.
But Simmons framed it as a religious issue. “The [state Supreme] Court is going to have to decide whether it will allow a [lower] court to punish a mother for her religious views and order her child into government-run schools,” he said. The lower court didn’t “say why government school was in the child’s best interest; it just assumed that it was based on the fact that in its view, the mother and the child both had religious views that were too narrow.”
The court’s ruling is expected in several months.