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Will a California ruling reshape homeschooling?

By Wendy K. Kleinman Published: March 14, 2008
"Parents do not have a constitutional right to homeschool their children.”

Those are the words of a California court opinion that has provoked homeschooling advocates nationwide.

The case, which led to a ruling that homeschooling is illegal in California if done by parents without traditional teaching credentials, did not start out as an attack on homeschooling. It began as a child welfare case reminiscent of an Oklahoma incident that in 1996 stirred a debate but no governmental changes.

Proponents of the alternate schooling method are concerned about California, though, because other courts could use the ruling as a precedent.

Several parents attending a national homeschool basketball tournament in Oklahoma this week said they hope the ruling will not survive.

"I am very disappointed with the finding,” said Mark Pyle, a homeschool parent and coach from Houston. "I do know as a homeschooler we're very blessed to have the freedom to teach our children at home, and I want my friends and people I know in California to have that same freedom.”

Oklahoma City homeschool parent Cindy Santelmann said what happens in California has a wider significance.

"I think what's going on in California is of interest because we have to be on alert to what's happening in the courts,” she said. "But I feel confident that homeschooling in Oklahoma is successful and parents are responsible and there's accountability.”

Parents advocate choice
Santelmann, a mother of six, said many people don't do what they should as parents in general, and the child welfare case in California therefore didn't warrant the ruling.

"One bad apple doesn't spoil the bunch,” she said. "One bad apple doesn't mandate a change in a law.

A list of Oklahoma home school support groups Read the California Ruling

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Oklahoma's similar case
The Feb. 28 ruling out of California began with a minor's complaint of physical and emotional parental mistreatment in a homeschooling family.

Attorneys for two of the family's children asked a lower court to require them to attend a public or private school where their well-being could be monitored.

The lower court denied the request, but the three judges on the appellate court unanimously found the parents do not even have the right to homeschool their children under the state's constitution.

Oklahoma's constitution is worded differently and is more permissive to the option of homeschooling, although it is not directly mentioned.

In 1996, a debate took hold here after the bones of 8-year-old Shane Coffman were found. His mother had informed the boy's Little Axe school that she was going to homeschool him; Bertha Coffman pleaded guilty to killing her son.

Officials at Little Axe said the letter had raised "red flags” but that they had no authority to act on their concerns.

Afterward, a task force under then-Gov. Frank Keating conducted a report that found, in part: "In this case, homeschooling was used to effectively hide the death of one child and the abuse of several others.”

Suggestions for regulations were discussed, but ultimately nothing changed.

In Oklahoma, parents need only submit a letter to a school stating their intent to homeschool if they are withdrawing their child; parents don't need to take any action if their children have never been enrolled in a public school.

Staff Writer Wendy K. Kleinman

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