California homeschoolers took an emotional roller coaster ride this spring and summer when Berkeley Unified School District officials made a bid to outlaw homeschooling in our state. The Berkeley bureaucrats’ attempt to have the courts declare independent homeschooling illegal was stopped when an open minded District Attorney, willing to educate himself about the Education Code and listen to the rock solid legal reasoning of Attorney William Rogers, declined to prosecute “The Berkeley Four” for truancy.
This was, of course, a victory for homeschoolers, with the Education Establishment again being turned back in their endless assault on educational liberty. More importantly, however, it was a victory for all parents because without the growing homeschool movement and its clearly superior pedagogy, public schools would not be under such great pressure to address their worst failings.
We homeschoolers, being life-long students and natural teachers, look for lessons in everything. It is therefore not surprising that we would look for lessons in The Berkeley Four case. An obvious one I’ve heard is that if California homeschoolers follow the law that is, file our annual affidavit with the state notifying them that we are operating our own private schools and maintain the required records-we have nothing to fear. The Berkeley Four, who filed their affidavits, were exonerated and so will we.
But if a student in my homeschool made that argument, I would have to hand out a failing grade for naïveté and superficial analysis. For one thing, the long-standing debate among homeschoolers on whether or not to obey the immoral compulsory attendance laws is passed over. For another, the ordeal that someone must endure to defend himself against the unlimited power of the state is ignored. Be that as it may, in surveying the current homeschooling scene here in California, I come away with very different lessons from the sanguine one above.
Bear in mind that there are tens of thousands of homeschoolers in California, probably over 100,000. A sizable percentage has declared their homes private schools. As mentioned, we file an affidavit with the state every year that includes our names, addresses and phone numbers. Clearly, the state knows who we are, where we are and how to contact us.
Yet, in any given year, only a small fraction of homeschoolers is investigated for truancy by local school districts. In the majority of these cases, a letter from a homeschool organization or a lawyer explaining that the family in question has enrolled their children in private school in full compliance with the California Education Code is all that is necessary to close the investigation. Occasionally, such a letter does not deter school officials, the family is required to make the same case in front of a Student Attendance Review Board and that closes the investigation. In other words, in almost all cases, public school harassment of homeschoolers ends rather quickly and harmlessly.
This begs the question: Why do local school districts continue to harass homeschoolers? I offer my homeschool civics lessons in answer.
Homeschool Civics Lesson #1. Government officials don’t know the law. Occasionally, there are education bureaucrats who don’t know the law and probably have never bothered to read the Education Code or their manuals. They simply don’t know that independent homeschooling is legal. Their colleagues say it’s illegal and they accept the statement without verification. If they receive a complaint about a child who may be truant, until The California Homeschool Network explains the law to them they proceed accordingly. Two priceless quotations from Alameda County bureaucrats during the late unpleasantness illustrate this point.
“To declare yourself a private school is not illegal, but it’s not legal either it resides in this very murky legal area.”
“We all have different feelings about whether homeschooling is legal in California.”
However, I suspect this type of bureaucrat is in the minority.
Homeschool Civics Lesson #2. Government officials exercise their authority as a club against people they simply don’t like. There are odious bureaucrats-some in Berkeley, in fact to whom homeschoolers have explained the law time and time again. They know full well that homeschoolers are not truant, their past challenges have gone nowhere, yet they continue to pursue truancy investigations to harass and punish. And punishment their investigations truly are, since fending off a government attack is time consuming, expensive and nerve-racking, with the possibility of a CPS kidnapping always a threat. The Berkeley Four found out first hand that punishment doesn’t begin with a guilty verdict, but with an accusation.
The majority ascribes government malfeasance to lesson number one and recoils from any other likely explanation for the many tyrannies we suffer, petty and grand. They want to believe that the bureaucrat is a nice guy, maybe misguided, but just trying to do his job. As a result, when a family is victimized by a school district, homeschoolers often blame the victim by asking what the family did to deserve harassment. They don’t want to believe that the family under attack was picked out arbitrarily. Actually, families are generally not picked out arbitrarily. The reality is far worse.
Homeschool Civics Lesson #3. State power is wielded where success is perceived as likely. Most of the families over the years who are investigated are vulnerable ones-single parent households, welfare recipients, families embroiled in custody disputes, people who could be portrayed as religious fanatics. The state perceives them as easy targets and they are. “The Berkeley Four” investigation began in a custody dispute and the families are members of a non-traditional church. Two other California homeschool cases pending also prove this point. In both, the mothers are single and on welfare. Yet, in all three situations, the families are in complete compliance with the Education Code and the government officials know it. In fact, when one of these beleaguered mothers asked why among all the 200 homeschool families in her county she was singled out, the answer was swift: “Because you don’t have a job.”
Homeschool Civics Lesson #4. The state “makes an example” of a small number of people to deter dissent. Even though the Department of Education has the names and addresses of homeschoolers all across California, they have not and will not initiate a statewide round up. They know that the backlash would be a public relations disaster. The Lucia Mar School District in San Luis Obispo County tried to do just this a few years ago and the calls and faxes of protest shut down the district office until the bureaucrats cried uncle and called off their assault.
No, a mass, nazi-style sweep of moms and dads is simply out of the question, especially in this era of friendly fascism. Even most low-level government functionaries know full well the Misean dictum that all governments, no matter how tyrannical, require public support. Instead, the state uses the cheaper, easier and elegant strategy of attrition. It acts as all predators do, surveying the herd, looking for the young, the sick, the injured, biding its time to strike when the weak is not protected by the others. We California Homeschoolers are a nervous herd of gazelle with a cheetah roaming in our midst. We go about grazing, drinking from the watering hole, minding our young, but always with an eye on the cheetah and wondering who will be his next meal. Some of us find playing the role of prey too much and quit or flee to what is perceived as relative safety, the government run homeschooling programs. California Homeschool Network looses a significant percentage of our membership each year due to families sending their children back to public school. How many give up because they are tired of being afraid we may never know. How many more families never try homeschooling because they are afraid?
Homeschool Civics Lesson #5. The state can threaten you, fine you and indeed take your children for lawful activity. Information from the Homeschool Legal Defense Fund, Pacific Justice Institute and CPSWatch indicates that a small but growing number of families find themselves entangled with Child Protective Services for either being Christian, homeschoolers or worse, both. Apparently, Christian parents are automatically suspected of being child beaters because they spank and indoctrinate their children with horrors religion. Likewise, homeschoolers are suspected of being abusers because we isolate our children and neglect their education. In the Kafkaesque world of family court where common sense forget about the Bill of Rights does not apply, lawful activity can have grave consequences. The child protection racket has made the inconvenient and messy process of passing laws against subversive behavior obsolete. Remember, the accusation, not the guilty verdict, begins the punishment.
In general, homeschool advocates don’t like to call attention to these civics lessons. We much prefer to spread our positive message of how natural, loving and rewarding homeschooling is and that all families can benefit from the homeschooling life. My colleagues and I in the California Homeschool Network devote most of our energy to addressing the issue of how we can make homeschooling easier, particularly for new families. Our webpage sports the statement, which is quite true, that a homeschooler is more likely to be hit by lightning than meet official harassment in California.
Nevertheless, the fact remains, though deafeningly unspoken in homeschooling circles, that we are enemies of the state. Whether we admit it or not, whether we want it to be or not, homeschooling is a profoundly political act. It is the rejection of the state’s all-important first step in instilling the habit of obedience in its subjects. Our children are not captive in government schools where they can be prevented from learning to read, inculcated with a loathing of all things intellectual, force fed a constant diet of propaganda or psychologically manipulated and drugged into obedience. Without public school attendance, the state cannot break the family bond to wrest control of our children’s minds and is thereby thwarted in its regimen of voluntary servitude. That is why homeschooling is so hated not only by the Education Establishment which sees its jobs threatened by us, but more importantly by the political class and their managers, whomever you believe is at the locus of power which sees its power endangered by us.
Homeschoolers will never be left alone. Even if the Education Establishment woke up tomorrow to the glaringly obvious realization that homeschooling can’t put a significant dent in their machine present day economics and the brainwashing of the current generation of adults stand forcibly in the way the political class cannot allow our escape hatch from compulsory schooling to remain open. Only a tiny minority of intellectuals devoted to liberty could cause a revolution, as has happened in every revolution throughout history. How better to develop these intellectuals than in the quintessence of educational freedom that is homeschooling? Our government, like every government since before Plato conceived of his Republic, knows full well the danger that homeschooling represents. My final Homeschool Civics Lesson is therefore the most important to learn: homeschoolers must be eternally vigilant.
September 21, 2000
Cathy Cuthbert is a wife, homeschooling mother and volunteer with the California Homeschool Network. CHN has established a Legal Defense Fund for the Berkeley families and other California families facing serious challenges to their right to homeschool. For more information go to http://www.cahomeschoolnet.org or call 800/327-5339 (760/431-1027 outside California).