“Law”, said the English judge Sir William Blackstone, “is the embodiment of the moral sentiment of the people” (Edwards 343). Accordingly, the compulsory education laws in America have served greatly to further injure the very thing they originally set about to amend. As a homeschooling father of five small children, I am thankful to those who have resisted the untoward advances of state educational power over children. They rightly understood that if parents do not retain the ultimate responsibility and authority over the education of their children, they, in effect, have no control over the raising of their children in any sphere, whether it is moral, social, spiritual, or mental.

The compulsory education laws have a unique history worth understanding. The struggle for parental rights in education is equally intriguing. Lastly, these two sets of law have had a unique effect on my family and its future.

The history of compulsory education is a curious one. The first compulsory education law was passed in 1850 in Massachusetts. Sheldon Richter, senior editor at the Cato Institute, records how literacy rates have fallen since the advent of compulsory education. He describes an anecdote of how “Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s office issued a paper… stating that the literacy rate in Massachusetts has never been as high as it was before compulsory schooling was instituted. Before 1850… literacy was at 98 percent. When Kennedy’s office released the paper, it was 91 percent” (Richman 38). Powerful voices in the 20th century pushed for forced education of children in public settings, among these, Horace Mann and John Dewey, men who are still revered by many professional educators today. In time, parents would succumb to the march of “free” state education, unable to see the writing on the wall. More recently, the widespread belief has arisen that those who do not attend public school are either rich (and thus, privately schooled or tutored) or fools who are destined to lives of poverty. Today, the high school diploma represents the minimum standard of normalcy for young people. Most large employers refuse to hire applicants without one, regardless of actual knowledge and skill level. In the past forty years, the college degree has taken on a similar aura, despite numerous studies showing that most college graduates are ill prepared for work in their chosen field. In effect, the compulsory education laws have blinded Americans, leaving them marching to the beat of a broken drum.

Conversely, while the compulsory education laws grew in popularity, many families resisted. The right to home educate was a struggle for some, a full-scale war for others, but for many families today, a cherished right. Those who fought the system risked jail time, the removal of their children from their homes, and other sanctions and fines. But through perseverance and a just cause, they emancipated millions of children from a harmful and unsafe education. Presently, few families have had the ability or time to benefit from these changes in law.

Christopher Klicka, senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) believes that home education “is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments” (Klicka 27). Despite the Constitutional amendments predating compulsory education laws, this sentiment has not always been shared. A member of the Texas State Teacher’s Association once declared that home schooling “is a form of child abuse” (Klicka 24) and the 1987 platform of the National Association of Elementary School Principles listed eight reasons why “home schooling is inferior to traditional classroom settings” (Klicka 24) among them, that it “may violate health and safety standards”, “may not permit effective assessment of academic standards”, and that it “denies students the full range of curriculum experiences and materials” (Klicka 25). Based on recent observation of the public school system, most objective readers might assume the NAESP was referring to public schools, rather than home-educated children. Consider that many home-schooled children are active in work-study programs, go on field trips to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., never get shot, stabbed, or beat up by fellow students, rarely suffer from head lice, toxic mold exposure, or epidemic flu outbreaks, and excel in every category of academic achievement over and above their fellow public school students.

Even traditional heroes of the public school world are now pointing to home education as perhaps the only remedy to America’s moral and educational decline in the world. Hal Bennett’s groundbreaking 1972 book No More Schooling, which openly encouraged parents to lie to school authorities, was highly recommended by educator John Holt. Holt insisted, “Read this book. It should do a great deal to break the government’s unnecessary and harmful stranglehold on the learning of our children” (Bennett back cover). John Taylor Gatto, a successful inner-city teacher and winner of the New York State Teacher of the Year in 1990 and 1991, now lectures and writes on the pitfalls and harm of public schooling. Throughout the early 20th century, popular journalist H.L. Mencken also criticized public schools warning that “the aim of public education is not to spread the enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed a standard citizenry, to put down dissent and originality” (Sheldon 70).

Without these forbearers of the struggle for parental rights, my wife and I would likely face arrest, fines, or even, perhaps the removal of our children from our home. Yet, in Florida, one of thirty-seven states that allow home education by statute (Klicka 158), I have very minor responsibilities to the state. Chiefly, I have to notify them of my intent to educate my children at home, to keep documentation of my child’s written work, and to have the child evaluated or tested once a year. Although some might legitimately question the state’s interest in even these small tasks, they are a far cry from thirty years ago when my parental rights would be usurped by a state machine bent on compliance. As one author concludes, the homeschool movement’s “relationship with the establishment has become less adversarial in recent years as dissatisfaction with public education has mounted, tolerance for the unconventional has increased, and litigation has forced school boards to accept homeschooling as the price for legal peace” (Cutler 204).

I remember well the shock I felt when a mother of a six-year old told me she had just ordered a $300 phonics program to supplement her child’s first grade public school classes to help him learn how to read. My wife was recently told that day care centers (also known popularly as pre-schools) are being asked by school boards to slow down the reading classes as children are coming into kindergarten already knowing how to read and it is disrupting their classes. With little effort and no experience, my wife and I have taught each of our children to read well before they turned four. My five and six-year old devour primers and readers designed for third and fourth grade students and read the Bible without hesitation. While I don’t think my children are geniuses, I cringe at the thought of where they would be developmentally if we had allowed the public school system to educate them - and that is just the skill of reading, which is fundamental to nearly every other subject that educated men and women study.

In conclusion, it is the history of compulsory education laws that is perhaps more important for parents to be aware of than their right to homeschool. While the merits of home education are rarely challenged anymore, it is still the misunderstanding that many parents have of compulsory education laws that cause them to leave their children in public schools. If more parents were to see how compulsory education laws directly caused much of our national problems, they might rethink their decision in not educating their own children. The laws have changed now to more accurately affect the moral sentiment of the people; it remains to be seen whether the people will take advantage of them.

Works Consulted
Bennett, Hal. No More Public Schools. New York: Random House, 1972.
Cutler III, William W. Parents and Schools: The 150-Year Struggle for Control in America Education. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2000.
Edwards, Tryon, ed. The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Quotations. Standard Book Company, 1957.
Klicka, Christopher. The Right to Home School: A Guide to the Law on Parents’ Rights in Education. Durham: Caroline Academic Press, 1998.
Machan, Tibor, ed. Education in a Free Society. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2000.
Richman, Sheldon. Separating School & State: How to Liberate America’s Families. Fairfax: Future of Freedom Foundation, 1994.

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