Parents may legally home-school their children in California even if they lack a teaching credential, a state appellate court ruled Friday. The decision is a reversal of the court's earlier position, which effectively prohibited most home schooling and sparked fear throughout the state's estimated 166,000 home-schoolers.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had vowed to allow home schooling through legislation if the court did not act, praised the ruling.
"This is a victory for California's students, parents and education community. This decision confirms the right every California child has to a quality education and the right parents have to decide what is best for their children," he said. "I hope the ruling settles this matter for parents and home-schooled children once and for all in California, but assure them that we, as elected officials, will continue to defend parents' rights."
In February, the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled in a child protection hearing that parents must have a teaching credential to home-school their children. The decision caused a nationwide uproar among home-schoolers, religious activists and others, and the court agreed to reconsider its decision, a move described as unusual but not unprecedented.
The issue arose in part because California's laws do not specifically address home schooling, unlike those of at least 30 other states.
Friday's ruling essentially upheld the position of the state Department of Education and state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, who have traditionally allowed home schooling as long as parents file paperwork with the state establishing themselves as private schools, hire credentialed tutors or enroll their children in independent study programs run by charter or private schools or public school districts.
"As head of California's public school system, it would be my wish that all children attend public school, but I understand that a traditional public school environment may not be the right setting for each and every child," he said. "I recognize and understand the consternation that the earlier court ruling caused for many parents and associations involved in home schooling. It is my hope that today's ruling will allay many of those fears and resolve much of the confusion."
The court also said that the right of parents to home-school their children can be overridden if a child is in danger.
Home-schooling families celebrated the ruling.
"We're ecstatic, happy and thrilled," said Loren Gould of Westchester, who teaches her son, Logan, 7, at home. "He gets to keep his love of learning alive. . . . The world is his classroom."
The case stemmed from the Long family of Lynwood, who were accused of mistreating some of their eight children. All of the children are or had been enrolled at Sunland Christian School, where they would occasionally take tests, but they were taught in their home by their mother.
Lawyers appointed to represent the two youngest children had asked the court to require them to attend a public or private school full time so adults could monitor their well-being. The family court declined, but the children's lawyers appealed.
The 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled in February that Sunland officials' occasional monitoring of the Longs' methods of teaching were insufficient to qualify as being enrolled in a private school. Because Mary Long does not have a teaching credential, the family violated state laws, the ruling said.
The Longs, the Sunland school and others appealed, and the appellate panel agreed to revisit the ruling. That panel heard arguments in June at a freewheeling hearing attended by at least 45 attorneys representing disparate groups. Democratic and Republican politicians, religious and secular home-schoolers, and liberal and conservative legal scholars all weighed in, saying the court had erred.
Phillip Long, who has said the family chose to home-school the children because of their strong Christian beliefs, said Friday that he doesn't believe the court was swayed by the legal arguments.
"Only one thing swayed this court -- politics," he said. "This court was under pressure. . . . They did it to protect themselves and their reputation. Those judges want to be Supreme Court judges, they want to move up. They're not going to do anything to upset their careers."
Though the appellate court upheld the right of parents to home-school, it did direct the family court to revisit whether the Longs should be allowed to continue to home-school their children.
It's unclear what will happen, because in July the family court terminated its jurisdiction over the family's children, though the children's lawyers are appealing that decision. Long is confident he will prevail.
"Educating your children in your own home preexisted these buffoons that sit on the 2nd Circuit," he said. "It preexisted this state. It preexisted us. Parents have been teaching their own children since the beginning."
California does little to enforce the education department's provisions and insists that doing so is the local school districts' responsibility.
In addition, state education officials say some parents home-school their children without the knowledge of any entity, making them virtually impossible to locate.
Home-schoolers and government officials have largely accepted this murky arrangement, but the court faulted the Legislature for failing to clarify the rules.
"It is important to recognize that it is not for us to consider, as a matter of policy, whether home schooling should be permitted in California. That job is for the Legislature. It is not the duty of the courts to make the law; we endeavor to interpret it," Justice H. Walter Croskey wrote in a ruling signed by the two other members of the panel. "Our first task, interpreting the law of California, is made more difficult in this case by legislative inaction."
To that end, the court said additional requirements for home-schoolers in other states such as standardized testing or home visits should be considered by the California Legislature.
"Given the state's compelling interest in educating all of its children . . . and the absence of an express statutory and regulatory framework for home schooling in California, additional clarity in this area of the law would be helpful," according to the ruling.
Statements such as those irked some home-school organizations that are weary of regulation, but were supported by constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of UC Irvine's law school, who urged the court to overturn its initial ruling that banned most home schooling.
"I believe it's the right of parents, if they chose, to be able to home-school their children. That's absolutely their right," he said. But "the state has an important interest [in] making sure all children are adequately educated."