Aug 12, 2014

Court: Homeschooling not an absolute right

A Texas court has rejected the Home School Legal Defense Association's attempt to expand the legal rights to homeschooling. The El Paso appeals court handed down a decision last week, ruling that while parents have the right to educate their children at home, that education can still be regulated by the state.

"No parents have ever prevailed," Judge Ann Crawford McClure wrote, "in any reported case on a theory that they have an absolute constitutional right to educate their children in the home, completely free of any state supervision, regulation, or requirements."

The case involves Michael and Laura McIntyre and their children, five of whom are still educated at home. The family believes its their responsibility to educate their children. They believe the government is trying to take that from them, overstepping its rightful bounds. Texas law allows homeschooling as long as there is a written curriculum, and instruction in five subjects: reading, spelling, grammar, math, and good citizenship. The state doesn't approve home schools nor test home school students. It does, under current law, require assurance of these minimal standards. Though the homeschool advocacy group, HSLDA, has held up Texas as a model state, it sought to use the McIntyre's case to role back that last bit of regulation.

The HSLDA sought to use the McIntyre case to argue that not only do parents have the right to educate their children at home, they have the right to do that free from any government oversight.

The court found no legal precedent for that expansive claim.

The McIntyres' case began with a family dispute. Michael and Laura McIntyre withdrew their nine children from a private school in 2004 and began homeschooling. The children spent their days in a room at the Yamaha dealership co-owned by Michael and his twin brother, Tracy. That arrangement ended the next year, when Michael and Tracy got into a bitter fight.

Though the details of the dispute are not clear in the court records, the fall-out is. There was a lawsuit. The home schooling children were moved from the motorcycle dealership to a rental home. There was an anonymous tip to the local school board that the children were not being educated. Michael McIntyre's parents, Gene and Shirene, told the school district's truancy officer that the children weren't being given an education. This wasn't a bone fide home school. Tracy said that the children played music, but he never saw them reading or doing math. He said he overheard one of the children say once that they didn't need an education, because they were waiting for the rapture.

Though there were reasons to question the inflammatory reports of the estranged brother engaged in a legal battle for control of a business, school officials also found reason to take the case seriously.

Michael and Laura McIntyre's oldest child, a daughter, had run away from home so that she could "attend school." At the age of 17, she was judged by school authorities to be about a year and a half behind in her education. She was placed in a freshman class.

The school's truancy officer asked the homeschooling parents for assurance that they were meeting Texas' minimum standards, but they refused. They would not sign a form verifying they were homeschooling. They would not provide the school with a written affidavit affirming they were using a written curriculum and teaching reading, writing, math and civics. They would not say they were using a curriculum.

For them, providing the state with any of that information would have meant acknowledging the validity of the state's interest in their children's education.

The family sees a slippery slope from verification of curricula to proscription of curriculum.

The McIntyres' concern, as expressed by the HSLDA lawyers in the court case, was that if the state can ask them to say what school materials they are using to teach their children, then the state can, by extension, approve or disapprove the materials they are using.

As explained by McClure, the elected judge writing for the three-judge appeals court that rejected the family's reasoning, the McIntyres "appear to claim a fundamental right to be free of any state supervision or regulation concerning whatever education they choose to provide to their children in their home."

The judge found that the argument was without legal foundation: "They provide no support for such a right, much less sufficient support to show such a right is clearly established."

On its website, the HSLDA analysis of Texas' homeschooling law aligns with the court's ruling on the McIntyre case. The law limits the state's power to monitor homeschooling, but does not completely eliminate it. The minimal regulation was deemed acceptable in 2011, even as the group was taking up the McIntyres' argument about an absolute constitutional right. The HSLDA has pursued the expansion of the legal rights to homeschool by test cases such as the McIntyre's to the courts.

Michael and Laura McIntyre may appeal the appeals court's decision, or comply with the order to name a written curriculum

Thee legal dispute between Michael and his twin brother Tracy was settled in 2011.