By: Brian Sikma
Published on the Indiana GenJ Network site. This article has some slight variations from the original written in early 2006.
I was recently asked what was wrong with statewide mandatory exams for home educators and I wrote this paper in response to that question. It looks like there is a strong possibility that members of the Indiana General Assembly will push for an exam similar to the ISTEP for home schoolers during the next session.
Some individuals believe that for too long now some states have ignored home educators. These individuals see that the home education movement is growing and they wish to see the state take a more active role in insuring that a “quality” education is being delivered to those children whose parents have sought to educate them at home. Those who espouse the idea of mandatory exams usually do so from one of two viewpoints, 1) they are sincerely concerned about the welfare of children but are misguided in their thinking, or 2) they do not like to see an increasing number of people educating their children at home so they seek to impose regulations that would discourage this trend. While mandatory testing may sound like a good idea and a harmless plan at first, a closer inspection of the idea reveals several faults.
The main question that arises in dealing with this subject is, “is it within the proper jurisdiction of the state to require a mandatory exam for home educators?” This is the jurisdictional analysis of this issue and is very important in determining the proper answer.
In answering a question about the proper sphere of state authority it would be wise to look at what the founding fathers thought to be the proper role of the state. There can be no question that in a free republic like ours the individual states have a vested interest in seeing their young people educated in such a manner that they will become productive citizens. Thomas Jefferson in a letter to a friend in 1814 remarked on the interest that the state has in this issue. Jefferson’s argument was that once an individual had obtained a thorough understanding of the “three R’s” and was able to provide for themselves through some trade then they would be able to see through any attempt to infringe on their liberty. In making his case though Jefferson was very clear that he thought that such an education should not be done in contrast to the will of the parent. Home education has proved remarkably successful in turning out the kind of citizens that Jefferson believed were necessary to the maintenance of a free society. Since this is the case why is there a need to further regulate a system that works? According to our founding fathers then, one may conclude that a mandatory (ie: against the will of the parent) test is outside of the proper bounds of state jurisdiction.
The Supreme Court of the United States has several times been called upon to adjudicate on the question of where the line is between a legitimate state interest and the protected right of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their children. In the case of Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) the court ruled that “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations (emphasis mine).” In 1972 in the case of Wisconsin v. Yoder the Supreme Court prefaced its quoting of Pierce with these words: “The history and culture of Western civilization reflect a strong tradition of parental concern for the nurture and upbringing of their children. This primary role of the parents in the upbringing of their children is now established beyond debate as an enduring American tradition.” More recently in the year 2000 the Court stated in Troxel v. Granville that “The liberty interest at issue in this case—the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children—is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.”
The Constitution protects parent’s rights through the 9th Amendment (added in 1795) which reads “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” As we saw in the Jefferson letter of 1814, parent’s rights were retained by the people during the time period of the 9th Amendment’s ratification.
In the light of the above cases there can be no question that parents posses the right to fully direct the manner and upbringing of their children without any interference by the state. How does a mandatory exam interfere with that right? We will examine that question next.
If a state devised mandatory exam were implemented there would be the problem of coordinating the instruction of the parent with the material covered in the exam. While this is not an impossible feat it would unnecessarily interfere with the liberty of home educators to teach subjects in a way that best meets the needs of their children. Many home educators have chosen the path of home education because while they believe in the subjects that are taught in public schools, they do not always agree with the philosophical standpoint from which those subjects are taught. Since the vast majority of home educators are doing a more than competent job of educating their children it makes no sense to punish the whole when a minuet minority are at fault.
One may question what sort of differences would occur between the way a subject is taught at home verses a subject taught in the public schools so I will illustrate my point. In some schools around the country the history textbooks state that the reason for Thanksgiving was that the Pilgrims were thanking the Indians for their help that year. While that was the reason why the Indians where invited to the feast that is not the reason why the feast was given. A cursory study of the Pilgrims will reveal that they desired to thank the Almighty God for His divine providence throughout the course of the past year. Such differences as this one illustrate the problem of trying to test home educated children with a test based on the statewide ISTEP.
If the state is allowed to dictate what material is covered in the exam they could also dictate how the material is taught. As the above example illustrates. Such a regulation by the state need not come in the form of a law. The same end may be achieved simply by the way a statewide exam was written. Therefore, I firmly believe that a mandatory statewide exam for home educators poses a threat to parental rights and is inconsistent with the liberty that our nation and our state were founded on.