Sunday, June 19, 2011

A “Regulation-Free Zone for Home-Schooling Families” Comes Under Attack in NJ

Another education battle has erupted in NJ, this time involving homeschooling.

In 2003, a New Jersey child abuse case involving four homeschooled children prompted state Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg to propose a law “requiring other home-schooled children to get an annual physical and pass standardized tests.” Under pressure from homeschooling parents, she withdrew the bill, leaving New Jersey to remain “one of 11 states that are regulation-free zones for home-schooling families [whose children] get no public monitoring from the school system”.

Now, eight years later, another child abuse case – this time involving the death of a child – has prompted renewed calls for homeschooling registration and regulation. Led again by now state Senator Weinberg, politicians are considering new legislation.

What I find abhorrent here is the injustice of what can only be called guilt-by-association. Homeschoolers are specifically targeted, as if the abused children were victims of homeschooling. Before I go on, though, let me state my fundamental position: The responsibility for the education of the children rests with the parents, not the state (or “society”), and as such any parent that so chooses has an unalienable right to opt out of the public school system in order to school his/her child as he/she sees fit, no questions asked. The government’s job is to protect that parent’s right to do so, not chase him/her down for any kind of “public monitoring”.

This does not imply that the state has no role to play in regards to the welfare of minors. For a full discussion of the proper nature of that role, see my essay "Regulating" Business - the Good and the Bad. The principles that apply to the business-government relationship apply also to the issue of child welfare. In this case, the crime of physical child abuse should be treated like any other crime – prosecute the villains. In the absence of any evidence or suspicion of rights violations, the government takes no action.

But punishing the guilty is not what this is all about. There are already ample laws on the books for doing that. It’s really about statists exploiting these crimes against children to expand government controls under the guise of protecting children. What we have here is a microcosm of one of the causes of the expanding regulatory state; punishing the innocent many for the wrongdoing of the few. (A huge example of that; Sarbanes-Oxley, under which, in response to the fraud of a handful of corporate shysters, draconian regulations were foisted on the thousands of public companies that didn’t cook their books.)

The proper way to view the homeschooling issue is: until and unless evidence of an actual crime surfaces, leave them alone! That is how objective law works. In regards to homeschoolers, my Italian analogy from my above-cited essay applies.

But that is not the mindset behind the push to end NJ’s regulation-free zone. Consider:

“We just want to know your child exists,’’ Weinberg said. “How do children disappear from view?’’

“I think it’s a big issue. I absolutely support the state not only requiring children to register, but to track the curriculum and track that the kids are there,’’ [national child welfare expert Judith] Meltzer said. “I understand why parents would choose to home school but not why they object to registering and certifying they have a curriculum that has standards for their children.”

It’s a big issue, all right. Who is “We”? “Disappear from view” – of whom? Apparently not the families, friends, clergy, family doctor, etc. Whose curriculum? Whose standards? And here we come to the core issue, and it’s not about protecting the rights of the child and prosecuting child abusers. After recounting the horrific and heart-wrenching death of an 8-year-old girl, the regulation-supporting NJ Star-Ledger chimes in:

Parents don’t have to notify the state when they choose to home school. They aren’t required to show evidence their instruction is academically equivalent — no curriculum, no textbooks, nothing. They don’t even have to be high school graduates. And their kids don’t have to take state tests or earn high school diplomas.

As my daughter pointed out, only two cases of abuse in eight years and thousands of those whom the Star-Ledger acknowledges are “dedicated parents” successfully producing well-educated children must submit to intrusive bureaucratic interference. But as I said, it’s not about catching abusive parents, who exist also among public school children. As the Ledger makes crystal clear, the goal is expanding the government’s grip on education. (It’s interesting, in this context, that no mention is made of the percentage of abused homeschooled children vs. abused public school children. If statistical proof showed a higher level of abuse in the homeschool community, you could bet statists would be shouting the news from the rooftops.)

Supporters of homeschool legislation tell us they’re only after some reasonable middle ground. “A physical or basic skills test doesn’t interfere with the right to home school. And it could save lives”, the Ledger tells us. And Robert Kunzman of the Indiana University School of Education “supports requiring home-schooled children to be registered with the state and to undergo periodic ‘basic skills’ testing to measure literacy and simple math proficiency.” Many homeschooling parents in states that have such laws may say that it’s not all that bad or intrusive, and perhaps it’s no big deal or at least bearable for many of them.

But that’s not the point, and homeschooling activists who believe there could be some middle ground between freedom and government controls are falling into the same statist trap that has given us the cancerous growth of the ever-expanding regulatory state. When Kunzman suggests “Home-school supporters could compromise a little more and not lose the autonomy they cherish”, he is setting a dangerous trap. There is no compromising “just a little”. Once you accept the principle that government officials may determine standards relating to curriculum, textbooks, or the education level of the parents; impose state-approved standardized tests; even determine how much bible instruction or TV watching is appropriate – the “autonomy they cherish” is what is compromised and, sooner or later, on its way out.

Homeschool advocates have it right. “This is not a home-education issue; this is a problem that is squarely with DYFS [Division of Youth and Family Services],” said Carolee Adams, president of Eagle Forum of New Jersey: i.e., It’s a law enforcement problem. Eight years ago, homeschooling parents fought and defeated the last attempted statist attack on their fundamental rights as parents. "You would have thought I had suggested the end of the world as we know it,’’ Weinberg said. They should fight just as hard this time around. They should fight against the injustice of being held accountable for crimes for which they had nothing to do with; against being used as tools for the alleged purpose of “saving lives” or serving “society’s right to know children are protected in the rare cases of abuse and neglect”; against the notion that homeschoolers are guilty until proven innocent.

A government should and already does have the legal tools necessary to deal with legitimate cases of physical child abuse and parental neglect, when and where it can be objectively proven to exist. For example, it can remove the child from the home. But government’s proper role here involves physical – and only physical – abuse. It has no business in a free society to interfere in the field of education … i.e., the field of ideas.

Though some supporters of this potential new legislation may innocently believe that it is about protecting children, nothing can be further from the truth. It’s about expanding government education control over one of the few bastions of semi-freedom existing in that field.

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