I taught a fun 20th-century U.S. History session to the 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds today: the legal history of homeschooling.
We just finished a unit on civil rights movements of the 20th century, a unit that encompassed the school segregation cases, the larger civil rights movements, women's suffrage, and the disability rights movement. A lot of our emphasis had been on the particular legal means by which various forms of institutional discrimination were ended or mitigated. So, for example, we watched the TV miniseries Separate but Equal, which is like a courtroom drama centered on Brown v. Board of Education. We talked about the passage of the constitutional amendment that enshrined women's right to vote. We talked about how the Americans with Disabilities Act -- a piece of congressional legislation -- was fought for and passed, and how its interpretation continues to be refined by the courts.
Having spent a fair amount of time on constitutional law, I was looking for a sort of a "capstone" lesson that would talk about one issue that's concrete to them as kids. I found that a number of children's and teens' books about government and civics cover the "students' rights" cases, presumably because adolescents in public schools are interested in their own free speech and privacy rights with respect to the government entity that's most closely intertwined with their lives -- the government school itself.
But since our kids aren't in a government school, or an institutional school of any kind, I didn't think that would be quite so interesting to them. So instead I decided to teach them about the legal status of homeschooling, and how that right was won in the twentieth century. It took me a couple of hours of Internet research, and skimming through one or two books, to find the information I needed to lead the discussion. I hardly counted the cost, because it was interesting to me personally anyway.
I began by writing on a white board a series of dates that the kids have memorized, keyed to particular events we've studied:
- 1989 (fall of the Berlin Wall, in case you're wondering)
I asked them to tell me about where on the timeline the first public school in America was founded. They correctly guessed, "Between 1492 and 1776" (for the record, it was Boston Latin School, and it was founded in 1635). Then I asked, "About when did it become common for most kids in the U. S. to attend some kind of an 'away school?'" (I accepted "around the turn of the century.") We talked about when compulsory education laws became commonplace (a little bit later than that) and then when enforcement became stricter (still later, possibly not till the forties, and not uniform across states). And then I asked, "So when were parents educating their own children at home?" Correct answer: all along, although for a period of time -- between maybe 1900 and 1980 -- they would be breaking the law in some set of states.
(In retrospect I should have stuck to Minnesota for the timeline of compulsory education laws, because I did a lot of hand-waving and talking about "most states" and "many states" and the like. Every state has its own timeline here and the overlap is not neat and tidy. If you adapt this lesson, I think it's probably a good idea to stick to your own state.)
So then I gave a short explanation of three landmark U. S. Supreme Court cases that set important precedents:
Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), which established that there are limits on the state's power to regulate how children are educated. (Specifically, it struck down a xenophobic -- mainly German-phobic -- Nebraska law banning foreign language education.)
Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), which established that a state cannot require that all children attend government-run schools; the right of private schools to operate, and of parents to fulfill compulsory-education obligations by sending children to private schools, was established.
Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), the most significant "Amish school case," which established that certain applications of a state's power to compel attendance at schools may impermissibly violate parents' right to direct the religious upbringing of their children. (After I finished reading The Yoder Case by Peters -- to myself, not to the kids -- I decided that Yoder is actually pretty complicated to grasp. I tried to keep it simple for the kids, and get the point across that there's a tension between compulsory education laws and religious freedom, and in this case the Court came down on the side of religious freedom.)
The children enjoyed discussing the legal principles of the cases, so we spent some time just talking about the details. For example, they were utterly amazed that a state would decide it was dangerous to teach children a foreign language. (Direct quote from the Nebraska decision that upheld Meyer's conviction before it went to the U. S. Supreme Court: "Other citizens, in their selection of studies, except perhaps in rare instances, have never deemed it of importance to teach their children foreign languages before such children have reached the eighth grade.") As for Yoder, I would have really loved to delve into the personal stories of the people behind the case; I wish there was a children's book about the Yoder case. It would make a really great picture book. Seriously.
I wanted to make it clear that homeschooling still comes under legal attack from time to time, so I shared with them two 2008 articles from Time magazine's archives: "Criminalizing Homeschoolers" and "A Homeschooling Win in California."
Then I explained how the Minnesota compulsory education law used to go. This is from Esbeck, Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1986), pp. 211-240:
The Minnesota compulsory education statute required students not attending public schools to be taught by "teachers whose qualifications are essentially equivalent to the minimum standards for public school teachers of the same grades or subjects."
I read that quote to the children and explained, "If the parent didn't have the right qualifications, the superintendent could tell them they had to send their kids to a school or at least to a teacher who did. If the parent refused, they could be charged with a crime." I let that sink in and then asked, "Okay, so how could a parent become qualified to teach her children at home?"
They made me read it again and then guessed... "They have to be a teacher." "They have to have gone to college." "If they're teaching, say, the second grade, then they have to at least have done second grade."
"It isn't obvious, is it?" And then I went on to explain about Minnesota v. Newstrom, the 1985 case that struck down the existing compulsory education law as "impermissibly vague" and overturned homeschooler Jeanne Newstrom's criminal conviction. After that, the Minnesota legislature crafted clear guidelines outlining how an ordinary person could fulfill Minnesota's compulsory education law through home education. (Those guidelines survive today with minimal changes in MN Statute 120A.22.)
Then they wanted to know how we qualified to be teachers, so we gave them a quick summary of the rules, including the list of subjects we have to teach and our reporting requirements. After that I asked them some questions:
- Do you think the government should require us to teach you a certain number of days per year?
- How about a minimum number of hours per day?
- Should they tell parents exactly which subjects they have to teach?
- Should homeschooled students be allowed to get a job for money during the hours when most kids are in school?
- Should homeschooled students be allowed to join the public school band or football team?
Interestingly enough, the kids all seemed to be supportive of heavy regulation! I think this is because at the ages of 10-12, kids are far more concerned with fairness than they are with freedom, and they think it is only fair that our homeschools should be held to the same standards as kids in institutional schools.
Also, they've never really had to deal with paperwork. It's easy to support heavy regulation when you don't have a grasp of the cost of enforcement.
When they were discussing how "qualified" a teacher should be to teach a subject, I asked these kids, whom I also instruct in Latin: "So how much Latin do you think I learned in school?" That trap didn't work, since they already knew that the answer was "zero." But I pressed them: "I don't have any qualifications in Latin. But I'm not doing a bad job, right? How is it that I'm able to teach you adequately without any qualifications?"
My 10-year-old: "Duh! You have a teacher's manual."
I like to think that it takes more than that, but it made both Hannah and me smile.