Today's post is from Robert Kunzman, author of Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling. Kunzman spent ten years as a high school teacher, coach, and administrator and is currently an associate professor in the Indiana University School of Education. He is also the author of Grappling with the Good: Talking about Religion and Morality in Public Schools.
Homeschooling's phenomenal growth in the United States has attracted the attention of policymakers and politicians in recent years. Now homeschooling threatens to cause an international scene—or at least some uncomfortable moments—between the U.S. and Germany. The news that a Tennessee immigration court granted political asylum to a homeschool family from Germany had been making the rounds in homeschool circles for several weeks, but immigration officials' decision to appeal the ruling earned it notice in this week's New York Times.
German parents Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, concerned about the public school environment and wanting to provide religiously-based instruction (the two most common reasons for American homeschoolers as well), decided to homeschool their five children—despite the fact that such a practice is illegal in their native land. What followed were over $11,000 in fines and threats that the Romeikes would lose custody of their children.
The Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), the largest and most influential homeschool advocacy organization in the world, saw the opportunity to push back against the German system by helping the Romeikes apply for political asylum. The family moved to rural Tennessee in 2008, and this January they were granted asylum because of persecution for their homeschooling beliefs—an apparent first in U.S. immigration history. According to HSLDA, immigration judge Lawrence O. Burman offered a blistering critique, asserting that Germany violated "basic human rights that no country has a right to violate" and describing German policy as "repellent to everything we believe as Americans."
The Romeike case—and Judge Berman's critical comments—highlight a fundamental difference between how the United States and Germany view the relationship between families and the state, and the role the government should play in educating citizens. From its founding, America has sought to limit the reach of government, and suspicion of government intrusion is obviously alive and well today. While Germans (and other Europeans) certainly argue about the ways in which the state should regulate and serve the public, there exists a far greater acceptance of the idea as a whole.
In the realm of education specifically, Americans have traditionally seen public schools as an important site of civic and social development, a rationale that was central in the formation of common schools in the nineteenth century. But the courts have long recognized the right of Americans to opt out of public schools, and this choice has been increasingly made in the form of homeschooling (a 74% jump between 1999 and 2007).
While it may not appear so from the outside, homeschoolers are a diverse bunch, running the gamut of culture, ideology, and practice. But the common thread that ties them together—whether twenty-first century hippies or Tea Party supporters—is the conviction that parents should be able to shape the education of their children, and the government should have little or no say about it.
But if the shape of a child's education is left solely to a parent's discretion, what happens to the idea of a common civic identity? I explore this issue at length in Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling, which included two years of visits and conversations with homeschool families across the United States. The homeschool parents I spoke with didn't reject this value of citizenship education; they wanted their children to become contributing members of a democratic society. They acknowledged, however, that complete homeschool freedom from curricular requirements or other state regulations left open the possibility that some parents would teach their kids values that are antithetical to democratic citizenship (racial supremacy or other abhorrent worldviews, for instance). While they certainly didn't endorse such practices, they made clear that the cost of regulating the ideological content of homeschooling is not worth the uncertain possibility of preventing a few children from growing up with belief systems entirely at odds with what a democracy requires to sustain itself. Unlike Germany, it appears, they were willing to make the tradeoff.
Amidst the debate over healthcare reform, Americans have spent a great deal of time and energy over the past year arguing about the proper role of government. As complicated as healthcare is, I'd suggest that questions of what it means to be a good citizen, what it means to participate respectfully, dissent passionately, and honor democratic principles, are even more complex and contested. It may very well be that our liberal democracy must risk its own well-being as it strives to persuade rather than compel its citizens to be generous listeners, tolerant neighbors, and willing to compromise in the face of reasonable disagreement. The challenge before us is how to foster an identification and commitment to a broader public that connects all of us while also recognizing that it is our narrower communities and private identities that sustain us in ways at least as powerful and important.