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Don't restrict home schooling, say supporters to state justices

Court will decide if parents must have teaching credentials.

June 24, 2008|Gale Holland | Times Staff Writer

Advocates urged a state appellate court Monday to overturn a decision that severely restricted the ability of California parents to educate their children at home, saying family-based schooling works for hundreds of thousands of children.

"You cannot deny parents the right to do good for their kids," said Michael P. Farris, representing the Home School Legal Defense Assn. in Virginia. "Anything that causes children to suitably learn, that should be encouraged."

A Feb. 28 ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeal barred parents from home schooling their children unless they have teaching credentials. Supporters of home schooling say the decision, if upheld, would make California the most restrictive of the 50 states on the issue and turn thousands of parents into outlaws.

Monday's rehearing in the case drew at least 45 lawyers representing the California attorney general, the governor, the state Department of Education and several religious-liberty legal foundations, as well as home-school father Mark Landstrom of Northridge.

His son Glenn, 21, who accompanied him, is now a student at Patrick Henry College in Virginia, a small evangelical Christian school founded to train students for careers in public life.

"It helped me feel really prepared for college," Glenn Landstrom said of his home-based education in an interview outside the courtroom. He dismissed the assertion that home schoolers are intolerant of those of diverse backgrounds as "kind of a strange rumor."

"I have a job at the Gap and never had any kind of problem getting along with people," said the young man, who plans a career in law or academia.

Others at the hearing also praised the practice.

"I'm an ambassador for the kingdom of God," the Rev. Wiley S. Drake, pastor at the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, boomed in the hallway before the court session started. "I was a home schooler for many years. We used to move every three years so authorities wouldn't come after us.

"The Bible, our legal document, says the family is required to educate children based on the Scriptures," Drake said. "We're against government schooling in any form. People who put their kids in public school probably should be arrested."

Most of the lawyers on hand, however, urged the justices to stop short of making their decision on the basis of religious freedom and parental authority and instead send the case back to a lower court for a more narrow ruling.

The February decision stemmed from a 2-year-old child-dependency case involving Mary and Phillip Long, who were referred to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services over allegations that included physical abuse of one of their eight children by the father. The children were home-schooled.

Court-appointed lawyers for two of the Longs' younger children asked that the parents be ordered to enroll them in public school as a safeguard against future abuse. The trial judge refused, saying parents have an absolute constitutional right to teach their children at home.

The appeals court rejected that proposition but granted a rehearing after an outcry from the public and politicians.

In Monday's hearing, Patricia Bell of the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles argued that the courts have "extremely broad powers" to overrule parents when children's safety is at risk.

"This is not an outlandish or unreasonable request," agreed Judith A. Luby, representing DCFS.

There is no specific language in the state education code regarding home schooling. The state Department of Education has allowed it 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.

But the department leaves most enforcement to local school districts, which, according to the arguments Monday, do little to ensure uniform quality of home instruction.

Several of the justices suggested that the Legislature had foisted the decision on the courts by failing to intervene.

"Do you agree that the Legislature has been somewhat derelict in not making this clear?" Justice H. Walter Croskey asked one attorney during the hearing. Advocates said they did not favor legislation, believing the current law is adequate.

After the hearing, several observers said it was hard to tell which way the court was leaning. The justices repeatedly pressed lawyers on both sides to specify exactly what they should do.

"All of you recognize the issues before us are monumental," said Presiding Justice Joan Dempsey Klein in wrapping up the proceedings. "We're as frustrated as you are."

A decision is expected within 90 days.

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gale.holland@latimes.com

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