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The Colfax Corner

by David and Micki Colfax

Some people in my homeschooling support group have expressed concern about the California homeschooling law and say that we need to work on getting a new one. What do you think? M.A., Berkeley, CA

This is an issue that comes up from time to time in homeschooling circles and one which we have often said is not worth a whole lot of attention. It is important to understand that California does not have a “homeschooling law” as such. What homeschoolers do is clearly authorized under the private schools provisions of the California Education Code: homeschoolers need only file a simple private school form with their County Office of Education each fall in order to comply fully with the law. Over the years a few local and state school officials and publicity-seeking politicians have attempted to make the case that homeschooling is not “private schooling” and therefore homeschooling is not protected by that provision of the Code. These efforts have failed in every instance simply because the Code as written does not define precisely what a private school is or is not, and efforts by homeschooling opponents to define it in such a way as to exclude homeschoolers have ranged from inept to embarrassing. (Sitting on a homeschooling panel in Sacramento some years ago, we listened to the now retired State Department of Education’s top attorney argue that homeschoolers did not meet his private school code criteria: they did not advertise or otherwise recruit students and were not profit-oriented, incorporated, or big enough. Of course none of his criteria are specified in the Ed Code, and he had a very rough time of it in the ensuing discussion).

So why, then, the almost cyclical push for a “new” homeschooling law? One reason may be that when homeschooling comes under legal fire from one quarter or another, we cannot point to a clear set of laws, rules and regulations that define who we are and what we do, and so defense efforts become messy, albeit invariably successful. For those who seek legal clarity, a new law would indeed be an improvement. Another reason is that those who sell legal “protection” to homeschoolers in other states might find it easier to defend California clients if a clear homeschooling law were in place. And yet another reason might be that there are those of us who feel that as homeschoolers we are traveling, as it were, under false colors, that we are not private school operators but homeschoolers and should be recognized as such.

They why shouldn’t California homeschoolers push for a homeschooling law? The easy answer is the cliche that if something isn’t broken, it doesn’t need to be fixed. And the fact is, the present Education Code serves us very well indeed, precisely because it is vague and non specific. But there is a better reason why California homeschoolers would be very foolish indeed to push for a “new” homeschooling law. All we have to do is look at the body which would be responsible for the passage of such a law--the California state legislature. Here is a body that is--to put it as kindly as possible--massively influenced by the teachers’ unions--the biggest contributors to state assembly and senate campaigns--as well as by the education establishment in general. Given the dismal state of public education in California today (it ranks below Alabama and Mississippi on many performance indicators) there is little question that the unions and educrats would gleefully seize upon the opportunity to “cooperate” in a misguided effort by homeschooling activists to write a “good” homeschooling law.

California homeschoolers who might be inclined to support a movement for a “new” homeschooling law should take a close look at what has happened in other states in which homeschooling law revision efforts were mounted. In general, where the education lobbies were weak and homeschooling was difficult under existing statues, those efforts helped homeschoolers. But where education lobbies were strong, and where efforts were undertaken to “improve” flawed but not prohibitively restrictive statues, results ranged from poor to very bad. In several instances laws were clarified, to be sure, and homeschooling was given legal standing, but at the unacceptable (to us) cost of giving the state greater control over credentialing, testing, and curriculum.

In short, yes, it would be good to have a good homeschooling law in California. Is it likely that we could get such a law? No. Is it possible that if we start tampering with the Education Code we could end up with something far worse than what we operate under today? In our opinion, based on our understanding of California politics and the State Department of Education, it is more than possible: it is all but inevitable. Our advice to your support group friends: Give your children the time you might have spent on worrying about our flabby Ed Code; it’ll be far better spent.

I have heard you speak at homeschooling conferences about college admissions, where you’ve said that at some point it becomes necessary for the homeschooler to find out what is required to do well on the admissions tests and to spend a lot of time preparing for those tests. Isn’t that a repudiation of what homeschooling is all about? We’ve homeschooled our children right through college and wonder why you didn’t do the same. A.V., Vancouver, B.C.

Several good points are raised in this question and we’ll try to do it justice, starting with your last point. We suppose that if our boys had not left home at 17 or 18 and continued to live and work on the ranch, reading, writing, and talking for the next four or five years much as before, they might have learned as much, and in some ways more, than they would at college. Indeed, if they hung around for another few years they almost certainly would have learned infinitely more than they would have in most contemporary graduate programs in sociology or English! And that’s why we told each one, as he headed off to college, that his education was done, that now they were going off to get credentials. And among other things, the fact remains that college and university programs are for the most part credentialing, certifying, or pre professional operations, a mix of channels and barriers that regulate the flow of people into certain sectors and occupations in the work force. Of course most people don’t need these credentials in order to find work of one sort or another, but as one critic has observed, we are becoming an increasingly “credentialized society,” and since our children were interested in going into occupations that require those kinds of credentials, college was an appropriate option. And while it is still possible to be a journalist or a farmer, for example, or to engage in thousands of other occupations without credentials that are backed by the full force of law, it is not only difficult but illegal to practice law or medicine--and thousands of other occupations--without possessing the kind of credentials that homeschooling parents, however competent, cannot confer.

Which takes us to the first part of your question: Being prepared for a world in which tests--however silly, invalid, or demeaning--may make sense in one situation and no sense whatsoever in another. And while we like to think of homeschooling as an enterprise in which learning is meaningful, satisfying, and its own reward, we live in a world in which these considerations are scarcely honored, if at all. If one is to live in such a world--which is not to say that there are not a multiplicity of strategies for challenging the absurdities of that world--it makes sense to develop the kind of skills that allows one to cope effectively with its demands. Like it or not, it isn’t possible to practice medicine or dress hair without the proper licenses, and there is not much that homeschoolers can do about it.

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