Long-time readers of this blog know that I spent two years providing supplemental education for home-school students in California (through the excellent program Torrey Academy). Because of that, I have watched the recent flap about homeschooling in California with some interest.

Susan Duclos summarizes the facts of the case well:

The appellate court ruling stems from a case involving Lynwood parents Phillip and Mary Long, who were repeatedly referred to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services over various allegations, including claims of physical abuse, involving some of their eight children.

All of the Long children were enrolled in Sunland Christian School, where they would occasionally take tests, but were educated in their home by their mother.

Background of this, via the Appellate ruling, shows that a Welfare and Institutions Code section 300 petition was filed on behalf of three minor children after the eldest of them reported physical and emotional mistreatment by the children’s father.

The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services investigated the situation and discovered, among other things, that all eight of the children in the family had been home schooled by the mother rather than educated in a public or private school.

The attorney representing the younger two children asked the juvenile court to order that the children be enrolled in a public or private school.

I have made the operative sentence bold. From the description, it seems Philip and Mary Long were using what in California homeschooling circles is known as an “independent study provider,” or ISP. As I understand the structure, ISP’s are either run by private schools or as private schools, and handle all the administrative aspects of schools, such as keeping attendance, issuing grades, etc. However, the instruction of the child is left up to the parents–sometimes, the parents educate them at home, while other times they will outsource the child’s education to a ‘supplemental educational provider,’ like Torrey Academy. Such supplemental education providers do not claim to be private schools–they leave the grades, the administration, etc. up to the ISPs, for whom they provide the education.

While the ruling has been trumpeted as putting homeschooling in jeopardy in California, it’s not clear that this structure was legal to begin with.

The ruling hangs upon interpreting section 48222 of the California Education Code, which is the ‘private school exemption.’ As Gabriel Malor at Ace of Spades notes, the only options for education in California are (1) public school; (2) private school; or (3) credentialed tutor. “ISP’s” are essentially the California home-schooler community’s workaround solution to provide for homeschooling, which California state law does not explicitly authorize. They allow parents to partner with private ‘schools’ through a neat division of labor and geography. There is no reason for an “ISP” to meet for class, ever, given that the instruction is handled entirely by the parents. This is, in fact, the solution that Malor says is still licit:

This is not as bad for homeschoolers as it looks. To be a private school in California, all the parent has to do is be “capable of teaching” the required subjects in the English language and offer instruction in the same “branches of study” required to be taught in the public schools. They also have to keep a register of enrollment at their “school” and a record of attendance. Once a year they have to file an affidavit with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction with things like their names and address, the names of the students and their addresses, a criminal background check (since we don’t want unsupervised felons teaching kids), and their attendance register. That’s it.

That’s almost it. As the brief points out, the language of the exemption seems to suggest that ‘private schools’ actually be schools that have physical locations. From Section 48222, “Children who are being instructed in private full-time day schools by persons capable of teaching shall be exempted.” In this case, the court argues that:

It is clear that the education of the children at their home, whatever the quality of that education, does not qualify for the private full-time day school or credentialed tutor exemptions from compulsory education in a public full-time day school.

The head of the ISP, which in this case was Sunland Christian School, filed a letter in the parent’s defense, which seemed to put forth Malor’s solution. However, the brief rejects it:

Nor is there importance to Mr. Neven’s statement, in a letter to the Lynwood Unified School District, that Sunland Christian School “has been evaluated by both Los Angeles Unified School District and the Los Angeles County Office of Education to be in compliance with state laws.” Such representation does not constitute a statement that the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Los Angeles County Office of Education knowingly gave their stamp of approval to children being deprived of an education in a public or private full-time day school setting, or by a credentialed tutor, through the ruse of enrolling them in a private school and then letting them stay home and be taught by a non-credentialed parent

Moreover, the very language of section 48222 is an implicit rejection of the parents’ position that having someone from Sunland Christian School monitor mother’s instruction of the children is sufficient. Section 48222 provides an exemption from compulsory public school education for “[c]hildren who are being instructed in a private full-time day school.” (Italics added.) It is the language of the statutes that constitutes California’s plan for education of its children. Thus, under California’s compulsory public school education law, Mr. Neven’s occasional observation of mother’s instruction of the children and their occasional taking of tests at the private school is without legal significance.

In other words, the court’s interpretation seems to rest on the notion that a “private day school” must have a physical location to which children travel. While the brief does not explicitly state that, it’s rejection of the decentralized “Independant Study Provider” depends upon the notion that “school” must be a place where students go for a certain number of hours, whether that is a home or not.

Clearly, the Superintendent of Public Instruction–which recognizes private schools–has been interpreting the law differently than the court did. It has awarded ‘private school’ status to many groups that are functionally home school support networks. While the immediate ramifications are uncertain, this decision could prompt a re-examination of California’s private schools by the Superintendent’s office, putting numerous home-school ISP’s in jeopardy.

Whether such a scenario plays out is anyone’s guess. Regardless, this decision undermines the legal loophole that most homeschoolers in the state were taking advantage of. While the decision will doubtlessly be debated by the courts, homeschoolers would do better to start working now to amend the law for, as Joseph Knippenberg points out, the weight of judicial interpretation is squarely against them.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • This is a very sad situation for home educators. It is a shame that California wants to do away with a valid and effective means of educating children. I can’t speak to the individual family case, but to invalidate homeschooling across the board is a grave mistake.

  • Correct me if I’m wrong here – it sounds like the problems would be with the ISP type of homeschooling, but that filing your own home as a private school would still be ok? If that is so, it seems that there isn’t any real and present danger to homeschooling per se, just perhaps to a certain method of record keeping.

    It seems like now would be a good time to work towards making homeschooling specifically legal, rather than trying to keep the loopholes open. It seems that there have been enough years of successful homeschooling (i.e. enough obviously successful students) to make a good case for why it should be legal. I wonder if HSLDA is going to move toward something like that?

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Emily,

    That’s an interesting strategy that I was actually pondering today. If it’s okay, it is so only with respect to the vague language of the law. I think it would depend upon how the courts (and the Superintendent of Education) interpret “school” in the private-school exemption.

    I agree about changing the law. It seems like the only really prudent strategy for homeschoolers in California.

  • prufrock

    Admittedly, I have not followed the intricacies of this particular case in California nor do I have a reasonable degree of knowledge of regulations regarding homeschooling in Washington State. But I thought that I would comment as I was homeschooled from 2nd through 9th grade in Washington State by my mother, a high school graduate. I think that I turned out all right but I can see how less engaged and less motivated students would founder in that situation. Based on my experience, I think that there needs to be stringent regulation of homeschooling to ensure that children are educated properly but the outright denial of that right to parents is not defensible.

    From your analysis, it sounds like the “independent study provider” loophole has been exploited to its fullest and I hope that this legal challenge will compel homeschooling families in the state to seek a better (and formal) solution. I would guess that the majority of these ISPs could be fairly characterized as a ruse to enable homeschooling in a state where it is not legal and that quality institutions like the Torrey Academy are the exception rather than the rule.

    Too often the choice by parents to homeschool is driven by a desire to shield their children from the secular world but this protection can ultimately render children who will be at a loss when required to confront the realities of the world in which we all live.

    With the benefit of foresight, I would like to note that the type of education for which Enthusiasmos advocates in his post today would not be possible in most homeschool environments, which in my experience, lack the adequate structure and qualified supervision to facilitate that type of discussion.

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