Homeschooling is one of the many fronts in the state’s war against the citizen. Despite the efforts of organizations such as the Home School Legal Defense Association, the Rutherford Institute, and Eagle Forum, as well as longstanding laws that protect family autonomy, homeschooling parents are still viewed as neglectful if not downright abusive. With methods ranging from bothersome forms to late-night arrests, public school officials and state bureaucrats continue to harass them, while demanding even tighter government control of what they regard as an industry that threatens their livelihood.

In Kentucky, the number of homeschooled children is skyrocketing. From 1994 to 1995 alone, the increase was over 30 percent, a figure higher than the national average, which the National Center for Home Education puts between 20 and 25 percent. Figures from the past four years in Kentucky show an increase of almost 70 percent. State Senator Nick Kafoglis, a Democrat from Bowling Green, uses another scale; “It just seems like I hear a lot more about home schooling than I used to.” And he is worried; “It seems like wc should have some kind of handle on the kind of education home schoolers are getting.”

The growth in homeschooling does reflect national dissatisfaction with the government schools. In Kentucky, however, its popularity also stems from the passage and implementation of KERA, the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, a scheme to reorder Kentucky’s schools to conform with the principles of Outcome Based Education. Chole Luebbers of Bellevue claims her objection to KERA motivated her to homeschool her three children, and Woodie Cheek, director of pupil personnel for Spencer County stated in February, “I think the major reason we’re having an increase in home schooling is KERA.”

Like Senator Kafoglis, Cheek is worried. The former president of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators, he has, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, been “lobbying hard for more state regulation of home schooling.” Why? Cheek claims that only 25 percent of homeschooling parents in Kentucky are even “trying” to teach, adding, “the rest of them, as far as I’m concerned, are a joke.” As evidence for this claim. Cheek likes to cite the grammatical shortcomings in a few letters of intent from parents to local school boards (one of the few requirements of Kentucky’s homeschooling code). “I can teach reald good,” reads one.

If 75 percent of Cheek’s letters read that way, perhaps he would have a case, but it would not speak well of his school system either. In fact, the National Home Education Research Institute in Oregon has published a sufficient number of controlled studies showing what most people already know; on average, homeschooled children perform better academically than their public school peers. For example, homeschooled children routinely score higher on standardized tests, as they did on the 1994 Iowa Basic Skills Test. The real reason why Cheek and Kafoglis are worried about homesehooling’s growth is much simpler: money.

As Scott Summerville of the Home School Legal Defense Association explains, “Under Kentucky law, each child withdrawn from the public school costs the district approximately $3,500 dollars in forgone funds” (state payments to local districts). “If that child is eligible for a school lunch (which by 1993 included 44 percent of all Kentucky children), taxpayers should save $4,900. To the taxpayer, the more than 5,300 homeschoolers in Kentucky should therefore represent savings of at least $21.8 million. To public school officials, however, those homeschoolers represent a hole in their budget—a steady hemorrhaging of funds with no end in sight.” Some school officials are at least candid about the loss of funds. Almost ten years ago, officials in Maine endorsed a bill (L.D. 892) which would have allowed “districts which keep track of home-school students to count those students in their pupil count used in computing their state school subsidy under the School Finance Act.”

Lacking this option, school officials and sympathetic politicians in Kentucky have asked the Office of Education Accountability to scrutinize homeschooling. An advocate of tougher homeschooling laws, Cheek is calling for a college degree requirement for parents and regular basic-skills testing by the state.

The Kentucky Constitution, however, stands athwart his aspirations. Section Five reads; “Nor shall any man be compelled to send his child to any school to which he may be conscientiously opposed.” In a forthcoming article for the Kentucky Bench and Bar, Summerville anticipates what this “Beckner Amendment” will mean should the state attempt to crack down on homeschooling by highlighting how it protected small church schools in Kentucky in 1979, after the state demanded certification for all private school teachers and the use of only state-approved textbooks in all private school classrooms. In Kentucky State Board For Elementary and Secondary Education v. Rudasill, the court found for the defense, arguing that “State-controlled homogenous schools have provided a fertile field for the growth of totalitarian governments.”

Summerville’s reading of the Beckner Amendment will probably get its day in court, and even if school officials are able to tighten the reins somewhat, it is unlikely they will ever have as much power as officials in Michigan recently enjoyed, where no constitutional protection of parents’ rights to educate their children exists. Consider the following two eases, from the Rutherford Institute, a religious and civil liberties oriented, not-for-profit legal organization in Michigan. On the night of March 9, 1993, Peggy Williams of Hale, Michigan, was arrested, fingerprinted, and jailed for homeschooling her three children. Leonard Burdek, the attendance officer for the Iosco County Intermediate School District, filed a warrant for her arrest on the grounds that Mrs. Williams was in violation of the Michigan Compulsory School Attendance Act. Burdek insisted that the act required any parent who schooled his children at home to have a bachelor’s degree. Although she was released on $200 bail, and the charges against her dismissed, Burdek continued to harass Williams, who finally filed a countersuit against Burdek, a case that remains unresolved. Shortly after Williams’ ordeal, Dawn Wilcox of Huron, who chose to homeschool her children because the public school system could not accommodate their learning disabilities, saw them seized by agents of the Department of Social Services. Anyone familiar with the modus operandi of today’s child savers will not be surprised to learn that they showed up late on a Friday afternoon, when securing a lawyer would be particularly difficult. Wilcox was able to recover her children the next day, but were it not for two recent Michigan Supreme Court decisions, what would continue to loom large in her mind and in the mind of Peggy Williams would be the threat of harassment.

On May 25, 1993, however, the Michigan Supreme Court delivered two rulings that vastly restricted the power of petty school officials to harass homeschoolers. Argued by Michael P. Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, the first case, People v. Dejonge, reversed a decision by a lower court which found Mark and Chris Dejonge, parents of eight children, in violation of the Michigan Compulsory Attendance Act because they were schooling their children at home without state certification. In the second ease, People v. Bennett, also argued by Farris, the court found that homeschooling parents are entitled to administrative hearings before the state can file criminal charges against them.

If bureaucrats in Kentucky and Michigan argue that homeschooling parents are underqualified, or worse, neglectful, officials in Virginia are suggesting that homeschoolers are actually abusive. Here the pattern follows that of most instances of state meddling in the private lives of families: first, find an exceptional case; second, argue that without sufficient government regulation, more of the same will happen. Enter Valerie Smelser.

Valerie was a 12-year-old Middletown girl whose naked body was found on January 23 in a ravine in Clarke County. The postmortem found Valerie to be severely malnourished, weighing only 51 pounds, just over half the average weight of a healthy 12-year-old girl. Charged with her murder are Valerie’s mother, Wanda, and her boyfriend, Norman Hoverter, who claimed to be homeschooling Valerie and her siblings. Indeed, a truancy officer had visited the Smelser home last October, confirmed their enrollment in the Seton School (a private Roman Catholic school that also runs a nationwide homeschooling program, complete with textbooks and lesson plans), and concluded that Wanda Smelser had obtained a religious exemption from the Warren County School Board.

The truth is that Wanda Smelser had never obtained the exemption, nor could her claim to be a homeschooling Catholic parent be taken very seriously in light of her cohabitation. Nevertheless, public school officials and the lawmakers they control have exploited the tragedy to the fullest, arguing that justice demands a review and tightening of Virginia’s homeschooling code, which Virginia Education Association’s president Rob Jones calls “grossly irresponsible.” An editorial in the Winchester Star shortly after Valerie’s death begs the state to “make sure little Valerie did not die in vain” by requiring homeschoolers (and private schoolers as well) to report every six weeks to their local public school board.

More than one Virginia lawmaker agrees. Reported in the Potomac News was the reaction of Delegate James H. Dillard II, a Republican from Fairfax County: when presented with the data showing the rapid growth in the number of children in Virginia with a religious exemption (1,445 in 1993 and 1,870 in 1994—a 23 percent increase) Dillard exclaimed, “that’s an alarming number,” adding that Valerie Smelser’s death “shows why families with religious exemptions need monitoring.” Delegate David G. Brickman, a Democrat from Woodbridge and chairman of the House Health, Welfare, and Institutions Committee, has appointed a House of Delegates commission to determine “where we should go as legislators to see if changes should be made in either the rules and regulations or in the statutes.”

Of course, on the block in Brickman’s committee will be Virginia’s “religious exemption” law itself (the only one of its kind in the country): “excuse from attendance at school any pupil, who, together with his parents, by reason of bona fide religious training or belief, is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school.” The religious exemption law operates independently of the rest of Virginia’s homeschooling code, that is, families that invoke it sever ties with their local school districts entirely. Ordinary homeschoolers in Virginia must provide a letter of intent to the local school board as well as regular evaluations each spring.

Some school officials, however, are not waiting for the ax to fall. One administrator, Mr. Joseph Jones, director of pupil personnel services for the Frederick County public schools, riding the tide of the Smelser backlash, has moved ahead with his own plans to crack down on homeschooling. He has advised the Frederick County School Board to cease accepting evaluations from Seton, and he publicly questioned the credentials of Judy Taylor, who administers the SAT for homeschoolers in his district. He also wants a host of new registration requirements on homeschooling families in his district: a new “Statement of Understanding” form not required by Virginia law and the collection of birth certificates and social security numbers for “monitoring all students between the ages of five and 18.”

Wherever Jones and officials like him attempt to overstep their authority, attorneys at organizations like the Home School Legal Defense Association try to keep them in check. Thirty-four states now have homeschooling statutes that prevent unwarranted intrusion by government in what for centuries people considered a natural relationship. The question is whether these laws reflect a preference for parental authority or are merely the government’s way of pacifying people it regards as quacks.