Laura and Michael McIntyre have home-schooled their nine children in this state with few regulations about the educational approach. But after relatives complained that the children never seemed to be studying and one said there was no need to study because they were "going to be raptured," school authorities stepped in.
The El Paso school district ordered the McIntyres to prove that their children were being properly educated. The couple filed suit, claiming that their "constitutional educational liberty interests" had been violated, said their lawyer, Chad Baruch.
The widely watched case reached the Texas Supreme Court on Monday. The outcome could have a far-reaching effect on the future of home-schooling in a state where 300,000 children participate, more than in any other, according to the Texas Home School Coalition.
At issue is whether Texas school districts have the authority to require that home-schooled children are actually learning.
"Part of the reason you're seeing this case is that question isn't settled," said Rachel Coleman, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Responsible Home Education. "Especially if parents home-school for religious reasons."
"It's sort of a mantra among home-schooling communities that you're preparing your child for heaven, not Harvard," said Coleman, also an instructor at Indiana University Bloomington.
Texas and 10 other states do not require home-schooling parents to register with the school district or state, or provide assessments on their children's education.
Home-schooled students in Texas don't have to take standardized tests, learn a specific curriculum or be instructed by certified teachers. Texas requires only that home-schooling include five subjects: good citizenship, math, reading, spelling and grammar.
"There is a pretty clear legislative intent to steer clear of these schools" when it comes to regulation, Baruch said during oral arguments before the high court.
About half of the states in the country require home-schooling parents to provide some form of assessment of their child, typically standardized tests or portfolios of their work.
Some also give parents the option of declaring their home class a "private school" as a way to primarily avoid the assessment requirement, Coleman said. California allows parents to create their own home-based private schools, maintaining records of their course of study.
A district official initially sent the McIntyres a letter asking what they were teaching their children, and gave them a form to sign concerning the curriculum. The official told them to either sign the form or submit their curriculum for review, Baruch said.
"The McIntyres interpreted it as requiring them to use a particular curriculum," Baruch said. The family did not respond to the district, which filed truancy charges. The charges were later dropped.
Laura McIntyre said she used the "A Beka" curriculum, published by Pensacola Christian College, according to court documents. But Justice Paul Green noted Monday that the family didn't give school officials any proof of that.
"We don't know if the curriculum that was being used was adequate or not," Green said.
S. Anthony Safi, an attorney for the school district, said an earlier case established that although Texas doesn't regulate home-schooling, the state requires that "the education be bona fide, in good faith, not a sham or subterfuge."
The official who met with the McIntyres and their relatives "received very disturbing information from the grandparents," Safi said during oral arguments Monday, noting that the couple's 17-year-old daughter ran away because she wanted to go to school.
An uncle told authorities he never saw the children doing much besides singing and playing instruments.
Jeremy Newman, public policy director at the Lubbock nonprofit Texas Home School Coalition, said that even if the parents lose, the case is likely to have little impact.
"A lot of people would say we're the most home-school-friendly state in the country," he said. "We do not believe the case is going to change the law for home-schoolers at all."
Newman said requiring home-school parents to submit their children's test scores to school officials "would be too intrusive."
Coleman disagrees. Whatever the outcome of the McIntyre case, she said, it highlights problems with existing state laws concerning oversight of home-schooling. Her group wants to require home-school parents to submit annual test scores or portfolios of their children's work to school officials for review.
"We need a way to evaluate each year that children are learning," Coleman said. "Is their right to an education being met?"