Home schooling in limbo

Times Staff Writer

A controversial legal ruling that outlawed most forms of home schooling in California will face greater scrutiny because the underlying family court case was dismissed earlier this week.

News of the decision broke Friday as thousands of members of the Christian Home Educators Assn. of California met in Long Beach, where they opened with: “We pray God you deliver home-schoolers in California from the mouth of the lion. . . . Change the hearts of these judges, we pray.”

The issue remains in legal limbo. On Thursday, the family court judge terminated its jurisdiction over two of the eight children of Phillip and Mary Long, who were accused of mistreating some of their children. All of the children are currently or had been enrolled at Sunland Christian School, where they would occasionally take tests, but they were educated in their Lynwood home by their mother.

Lawyers appointed to represent the two children had requested that the court require them to physically attend a public or private school where adults could monitor their well-being. The family court disagreed, but the children’s lawyers appealed.


The 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled in February that Sunland officials’ occasional monitoring of the Longs’ home schooling was insufficient to qualify as being enrolled in a private school. Because Mary Long does not have a teaching credential, the family has violated state laws, the ruling said.

The Longs, the Sunland school and others appealed, and the appellate panel agreed to revisit the ruling. That panel heard arguments last month and is expected to rule by late summer on whether parents can legally educate their children without a credential.

Home-school advocates said Thursday’s decision makes the appellate discussions moot.

“It should mean the whole thing goes away,” said Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Assn. “I’m very optimistic for the long haul. I don’t see how in the world this case could be upheld. That [dismissal] absolutely bolsters my optimism greatly.”

Edward Steinman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, said he does not believe that the family court dismissal undermines the ruling, but it could provide easy political cover if the appellate court wants to get out of the spotlight.

“I don’t think it moots the case. I think it’s two separate issues,” he said. “The family court issue is the one that triggered [the ruling], but family court is not the one that made” the ruling.

“It should have no effect,” he said. “But it became a political football, and the [appellate] court may use this to say ‘let’s just punt.’ ”

Part of the reason the matter is up for debate is because, unlike at least 30 other states, California does not specifically address home schooling. Under the state education code, students must be enrolled in a public or private school or can be taught at home by a credentialed tutor.

There was a public outcry over the appellate court ruling, which could affect an estimated 166,000 California children who are home-schooled. The state’s Republican governor and Democratic superintendent of public instruction and attorney general all agreed that the judges erred.

Phillip Long said in an interview Friday that the judge “saw things for what they were” and that the case has been an ordeal for his wife. He said he hopes that the ruling this week kills the broader case.

“We hope that it will, in essence, make it go away, for lack of better words, for the benefit of everyone,” he said.

Long said his attorney, Gary Kreep, along with attorneys from home-school organizations, plan to notify the appellate court of the termination soon and petition it to moot its ruling.

Some convention attendees remained wary, saying they fear ongoing attempts to regulate home schooling.

Susan and Greg Wheeler of Escondido are almost done home schooling -- their oldest is in college and their other two children are in ninth and 12th grades. But they fear for younger families.

“I’m concerned that the privilege of doing this is in jeopardy,” said Greg Wheeler, 50. “We are the primary influence in [our children’s] lives, rather than school officials who might not have the same values.”

The Wheelers took a break after perusing aisles filled with hundreds of vendors, including “Cornerstone Curriculum: A Biblical World View Education” and Bob Jones University.

“We’re here to get energized and inspired,” Greg Wheeler said.

Part support group, part curriculum mart, part devotional, the two-day gathering is the group’s 25th annual meeting. It began Friday morning with a session titled “Why Home Schooling Will Change the World” and will close this evening with “Dinosaurs, Genesis and the Gospel.”

The California Department of Education allows home schooling as long as parents file paperwork with the state establishing themselves as small private schools, hire credentialed tutors or enroll their children in independent study programs run by charter or private schools or public school districts while still teaching at home.

California does little to enforce those provisions, and some families decline to follow them, making those children virtually impossible to locate. Home-schoolers and government officials have largely accepted this murky arrangement.

“We don’t want legislation,” said J. Michael Smith, president of the Home School Legal Defense Assn. “We like it the way it is.”