A California appeals court ruling clamping down on homes schooling by parents without teaching credentials sent shock waves across the state this week, leaving an estimated 166,000 children as possible truants and their parents at risk of prosecution.
"At first, there was a sense of, 'No way,' " said homeschool parent Loren Mavromati, a resident of Redondo Beach (Los Angeles County) who is active with a homeschool association. "Then there was a little bit of fear. I think it has moved now into indignation."
The ruling arose from a child welfare dispute between the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and Philip and Mary Long of Lynwood, who have been homeschooling their eight children. Mary Long is their teacher, but holds no teaching credential.
The parents said they also enrolled their children in Sunland Christian School, a private religious academy in Sylmar (Los Angeles County), which considers the Long children part of its independent study program and visits the home about four times a year.
The Second District Court of Appeal ruled that California law requires parents to send their children to full-time public or private schools or have them taught by credentialed tutors at home.
Some homeschoolers are affiliated with private or charter schools, like the Longs, but others fly under the radar completely. Many homeschooling families avoid truancy laws by registering with the state as a private school and then enroll only their own children.
Yet the appeals court said state law has been clear since at least 1953, when another appellate court rejected a challenge by homeschooling parents to California's compulsory education statutes. Those statutes require children ages 6 to 18 to attend a full-time day school, either public or private, or to be instructed by a tutor who holds a state credential for the child's grade level.
"California courts have held that ... parents do not have a constitutional right to homeschool their children," Justice H. Walter Croskey said in the 3-0 ruling issued on Feb. 28. "Parents have a legal duty to see to their children's schooling under the provisions of these laws."
Parents can be criminally prosecuted for failing to comply, Croskey said.
"A primary purpose of the educational system is to train school children in good citizenship, patriotism and loyalty to the state and the nation as a means of protecting the public welfare," the judge wrote, quoting from a 1961 case on a similar issue.
The decision could also affect other kinds of homeschooled children, including those enrolled in independent study or distance learning through public charter schools - a setup similar to the one the Longs have, Dacus said.
The ruling was applauded by a director for the state's largest teachers union. "We're happy," said Lloyd Porter, who is on the California Teachers Association board of directors. "We always think students should be taught by credentialed teachers, no matter what the setting."
Parents say they choose homeschooling for a variety of reasons, from religious beliefs to disillusionment with the local public schools.
Michael Smith, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, said the ruling would effectively ban homeschooling in the state.
"California is now on the path to being the only state to deny the vast majority of homeschooling parents their fundamental right to teach their own children at home," he said in a statement.
But Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles, which represented the Longs' two children in the case, said the ruling did not change the law.
"They just affirmed that the current California law, which has been unchanged since the last time it was ruled on in the 1950s, is that children have to be educated in a public school, an accredited private school, or with an accredited tutor," she said. "If they want to send them to a private Christian school, they can, but they have to actually go to the school and be taught by teachers."
Heimov said her organization's chief concern was not the quality of the children's education, but their "being in a place daily where they would be observed by people who had a duty to ensure their ongoing safety."
The ruling: To view the ruling by the Second District Court of Appeal, go to links.sfgate.com/ZCQR.