“Regulating” Home School: Briefly Dissecting a Fascinating Editorial on the California Decision

The LA Times published a piece today arguing that the recent California decision to limit homeschool to “credentialed” parents has been misunderstood.

The piece’s authors, Walter P. Coombs and Ralph Shaffer, are professors emeriti at Cal Poly Pomona. They make some questionable points in “Regulating Home Schoolers”, a piece so bad it fairly begs for satirization. For instance, read this statement: “The court’s decision means that home schoolers must be given some substantive instruction in social studies and not simply spend their time watching Fox with its strange assortment of oddballs pontificating on current events.” Well! Coombs and Shaffer, please, don’t hold back. Tell us what you really think about homeschooling. While you’re at it, tell us what you really think about Fox News. It’s hard to read between the lines. Just stop for a moment and stand under this quotation, leaking with bias and unacademic discourse. Stick out your tongue and let your tongue catch it. Yes, kids, that’s what condescension tastes like. You’ll be drinking lots of it (if your politics align with “oddballs”, that is) in college, where you can learn from such unbiased, objective academics as Coombs and Shaffer.

Let’s proceed. Here’s another gem: “It’s evident that the vast majority who teach their offspring in front of the television do so because they don’t want their children to be subjected to such dangerous doctrines as evolution, abortion, global warming, equal rights and other ideas abhorrent to the evangelical mantra.” Well, yes. Abortion would appear to be a “dangerous doctrine”, Coombs and Shaffer, at least for the fetuses who this very moment sit in garbage dumps all across America. For them, the “doctrine” of abortion meant death. Not sure how you two would define “dangerous”, but that would qualify on my list.

Moving on, we come to this: “Finally, in its call for the Legislature to enact laws providing for home schooling, apparently without credentialed teachers, the editorial wants “reasonable regulations,” citing as examples required lesson plans or a student portfolio of work. Those regulations might be acceptable to some of the learn-at-home parents, but the Internet will be full of angry letters from home schoolers saying all that bureaucratic regulation is what they wanted to escape by teaching their children at home.” Once again: yes. Coombs and Shaffer, you’ve sketched this situation accurately, and your closing comment seems entirely logical and well-founded. These men, who I’m sure are quite intelligent, learned, and accomplished, have failed to justify a premise inherent in their argument, namely, that it is the right of the state to educate children, not the right of the parent to determine who and what educates their children. What on earth would make Coombs and Shaffer assume such a premise? There’s certainly nothing in the Constitution or our country’s founding documents that warrants such a conclusion. Furthermore, public education in America is barely a hundred years old. Yes, it took secularists that long to convince the American public that it was the state’s right and duty to educate children. And think about world history. Do people who voice the argument of Coombs and Shaffer think that medieval children were trucking off to state-funded schools back in the tenth century?

Public education, considered in the scale of human history, is breathtakingly young. And yet men like Coombs and Shaffer expect us to think that a) it’s the only reasonable practice of decent human beings and b) that it’s ridiculous for anyone to question this assumption. In reality, though, it is the thought of Coombs and Shaffer that is “young”, baseless, and quite harmful to society. If parents want to put their children in public school, fine. But they have absolutely no need or responsibility to do so. They can do whatever on earth they would like to do with their children–they’re the parents! No one regulates them or stands over them. See how far you can go with an assumed premise?

We close with this: “There has always been something decidedly elitist and anti-democratic in home schooling. It smacks of a belief that privileged children should not have to associate with the other kids in the neighborhood and that by staying home, they would not be subjected to the leavening effect of democracy. Moreover, it is apparent from the cries of the far right that there has been a specific policy in home schooling — to teach only the ideas acceptable to ideologues who fear the contaminating influence of what is commonly known as a liberal education.” This is a strange statement, historically speaking. It is often non-elites, culturally speaking, who home-school their children. This same group of people is often, whether you agree with them ideologically or not, fervently patriotic and great supporters of the democratic process. This last point is most curious, then, and it also gives us a nice parting shot at the end. Coombs and Shaffer seem to be confused, because many home-schooling parents love liberal education, classically defined (as consisting of study of the sciences, the classics, humanities, and other disciplines, a definition many of varying worldviews would subscribe to). That’s precisely what many parents want to give their children, in place of a politically liberal education, which is what most children receive in American public schools nowadays. I should know–I went to public school all of my life. My education paled in comparison to the classic liberal education, though it was frequently infused by anti-conservative, unacademic teaching that left me with little in the way of skill and intellectual ability and much in the way of heated rhetoric and half-justified conclusions (which reminds one of a certain article, by the way).

Coombs and Shaffer can disagree with home-schoolers. That’s their right (that one actually is in America’s founding documents). Of course, one could argue that they might have stereotyped home-schoolers; not every home-schooler is conservative, after all, so they look a little sloppy on that point. Beyond that, though, if you look at your average home-school product, and I know many, they are often well-spoken, intellectually sharp, logically capable, and well-rounded students. They are frequently academically motivated and mentally gifted. Look at a school like Patrick Henry College. Whether or not you agree with its politics and religious views, its students, many (most?) of which come from home-schooling families, boast impressive SATs, vocabularies, and abilities. There are a ton of National Merit scholars that end up at PHC. This is merely one example of many, though I’ll also note that my wife and her sister were both home-schooled, and thus I am personally insulted by this piece, and can testify that both of these girls were extremely well-trained and have both turned out to be women of great intellectual ability (I don’t think my wife’s sister has ever gotten a B, whether at a difficult private school or in college). In the end, that’s the main problem with this article by Coombs and Shaffer. There’s simply too much to refute its sloppy logic and its biased “arguments”, and it ends up overwhelming the reader, and leaving him desperate for a class in a “liberal school” in which to fall asleep and so clear his mind.

  • Anonymous

    It is nothing short of astounding that, given the deep and widespread consequences of parental NON-involvement in education, we should consider an attack on over-involved parents to be a good place to start with education reform. It’s crazy.

    But here are a few considerations.

    First, I don’t know the California State Constitution well. This judge held that there is no right within that document for parent’s to educate their children in any way they please. I would guess this judge is almost certainly correct. Let us not venture into the business of insisting that our policy preferences must surely be enshrined in old constitutions. They are not. That tactic is a loser. (And of course Owen doesn’t suggest it here–but others have.)

    But the good news is, we don’t need to invent a constitutional right in order to allow responsible homeschoolers to do their thing. All we need is good laws. The California case was decided on the basis of a bad statute. Instead of demanding a constitutional right to homeschool, I’ve got an idea. Let’s change the statute. The Governor of California has suggested as much. I’m rather confident that a new law allowing responsible homeschooling will pass easily.

    Now to a third point. Is it true that the government has the right or duty to regulate how kids are educated? Perhaps not, but those that think so surely have a respectable intellectual heritage backing them up (for instance, Aristotle, Politics, Bk. 1, chap. 12). I agree with Owen that the better part of wisdom is with those who argue the state has arrogantly gone too far. It is both Biblical and reasonable to see the rearing and education of children as the primary responsibility of parents.

    But surely we would agree the state must have some role in regulating the education of church. If a dad decides his son will be best educated by doing jigsaw puzzles for 180 days a year, I think the community might have something to say about that. It probably should

    For my part, I think the best way to handle this is testing. Test students at the end of the year to make sure they have learned whatever basics we’ve agreed they ought to be learning. (Jigsaw boy will not fare well here.) If a student doesn’t do well on these tests, then it may be appropriate to increase the level of state supervision over the child’s education: maybe lesson plan monitoring or portfolio monitoring would kick in.

    But this is complicated. Most students in urban public schools receive sadly low test scores. They aren’t learning to read. They cannot spell evolution; at least the creationist home-schooled kids can do that. May I suggest that the knights-errant of the anti-homeschool movement first turn their attention to urban public schools? For in truth, there are very few jigsaw boys out there–even in California.

  • Anonymous

    Regarding “Jigsaw boy.”

    Surely at some point he will begin to ask questions – how is it made? Can I make one myself? What materials would I use – card board, wood? If I use a jigsaw to make my own puzzles, what else can I use my jigsaw for? Who made the first jigsaw puzzles? What designs make the best puzzles? If I make a lot of them, can I sell them over the interet? How fast can I put it together? Could I put it together upside down without looking at the picture? If I can’t afford the wood, could I ask the local cabinet shop for scrap pieces?

    Begin homeschooling and you’ll soon realize that EVERYTHING is a learning opportunity.

  • Dana

    Anonymous,

    There is a tension between the rights of the individual and the interests of the state in education that has been dealt with over and over. While it appears that testing would be a good idea, you have to understand what testing does (particularly if it is high stakes) to really see why homeschoolers object. I went into this in some detail recently as I shared my written testimony against a homeschool testing bill introduced here in Nebraska.

    The central issue, however, is when is the state allowed to search your home, your mind, the minds of your children? They need probably cause. Which means that you have to do something wrong, first.

    We don’t search every home for drugs just because we would all be better off if we discovered drug use earlier.

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