Day 14 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010
By most any measure, homeschooling in North America has come a long way. Back in the olden days, homeschooling wasn’t a choice – it was the rule. Public schools didn't exist until commmunities embraced the notion that a standardized education could benefit everybody in a democracy.
But today, so much of the public school curriculum has been politicized and marginalized, many parents think going back to the olden days can actually be an improvement. Whether they’re uber-religious reactionaries to liberal social doctrine taught in public school or extremist political zealots indoctrinating their kids with counter-cultural dogma, voluntary homeschooling has taken off across the country.
Overgeneralizations about people who homeschool used to prejudice me against the concept, until I began hearing what my nephews and niece were – and weren’t – being taught in their elite charter school in suburban Detroit. Fortunately, they have parents who stay on-task, involved in the curriculum they’re studying and interfacing with their teachers when concerns arise.
But even if my brother and sister-in-law opted for homeschooling, I can see where the benefits - even for people without religious concerns - can add up. Public schools have become mired in standardized tests, plagued by irresponsible parents, and overrun with disobedient students. To the contrary, homeschooling in many communities has blossomed into a vibrant co-operative assortment of materials, programs, and activities. It's not just for radicals anymore.
Is Homeschooling a Right?
For Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, and other parents like them in Germany, however, homeschooling has never even been an option. It’s illegal in Germany, a country that views non-conformity with suspicion. German kids are required to attend public school, or private schools if their parents can afford it. Indeed, there are some private, religious schools in Germany, but the Romeike’s wanted to homeschool their five children because of curriculum mandates even religious schools must follow to maintain their accreditation.
Enter the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), an advocacy and lobbying group in Virginia that supports homeschooling initiatives. Upon hearing of the Romeike’s plight, the HSLDA offered to sponsor the family in America as asylum refugees. An unconventional solution, indeed, and one that has sparked some international friction between the US and Germany.
Normally, people who seek asylum in America do so because they have endured – or are threatened with – some form of civil rights abuse. These rights include religious, political, and sexual freedom. Courts in the US usually grant asylum if the person would face economic, physical, or psychological penalties if they returned to their native homeland.
For example, recent asylum cases have included women fleeing genital mutilation, homosexuals fleeing murder, and Muslim translators who have worked with US armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Having a European family petitioning for asylum protection for homeschooling just doesn’t seem to fit. So when in January a Memphis immigration judge approved Romeike’s petition for asylum, the Obama administration formally appealed the ruling “so as not to offend a close ally”.
Is Asylum the Right Course to Take?
At stake is not only a harmonious relationship between two of the world’s largest economies, but potentially a flood of new asylum requests from families who live in countries where homeschooling is outlawed, including Spain and Brazil. It remains to be seen if our government’s appeal against the Romeike’s can gain any traction. Experts say the HSLDA has done its homework and constructed a pretty solid case based on evidence supplied by the family, laws as they have been interpreted in Germany and the European Union, and precedents already set by other immigration courts here in America.
Obviously, there are intricacies to asylum law in which I am not proficient. However, the basic question in this case is whether seeking asylum based on a parent’s freedom to teach their children as they see fit is a legitimate use – or an abuse – of United States asylum provisions.
While some people may point to the Obama administrations’ position as yet more proof of their anti-conservative agenda, our government does have a point, doesn’t it? Why asylum? And why asylum in America?
The Romeike’s aren’t indigents – he’s a concert pianist, and she’s a piano teacher. They have the education and talent that could open doors wherever they choose to live. Is having an undesired social doctrine taught to their school-aged children sufficient justification for fleeing one’s homeland? Granted, Germany is hardly a bastion of evangelical theology, but could the Romeike’s remain to be “salt and light” in their native country? How many evangelical organizations might be willing to support them in their quest at home in Germany?
The Romeike’s aren’t political refugees, either. Granted, they may annoy school officials with their actions, but will they be branded as enemies of the state upon setting foot back in Germany? Yes, they have been fined for not sending their kids to school, but is that the same thing as having their civil rights and personal safety officially denied? What is the point at which evangelicals are allowed to spurn their government’s policies, and have the Biblical freedom to openly defy the law?
Stretching Persecution’s Definition?
Is homeschooling that essential to the Christian faith that it’s on par with more conventional aspects of religious ostracism and persecution? Are there severe civil rights penalties for people who don’t embrace the public school curriculum in Germany? Are parents not allowed to petition for changes in the public school curriculum there? Are they not allowed to instill their morals in their children at home? Is homeschooling that intrinsic a civil right that America should welcome parents from across the world whose homelands forbid it?
Can’t the Romeike’s simply move to Britain, Austria, or some other country where homeschooling is allowed? Why did the HSLDA have them resettle in Tennessee? Granted, it’s a relatively conservative state with a decent cost-of-living, but isn’t one of the virtues of homeschooling that it can be done anywhere? Was it purely for logistical purposes that the HSLDA brought the Romeike’s to America, and if so, isn’t that placing a potentially burdensome responsibility on immigration courts here?
At this point, I personally don’t care about our government’s concerns about economic or political fallout caused by our welcoming of homeschooling "refugees". If Germany is embarrassed about the attention it’s getting from conservative parents frustrated with their intolerance for homeschooling, why don’t they change their laws? It’s not America’s fault that we allow homeschooling and they don’t.
Think It Through
But I also think the HSLDA may be treading on thin ice:
Economically, our country is not in a position to welcome new residents when the ones we’ve already got are suffering with 10% unemployment (and we’ve got underemployed musicians to spare).
Politically, having asylum granted for homeschoolers could appear to marginalize the standards for persecution that have historically applied to imminent bodily harm and/or life-and-death situations.
Logistically, diluting the threshold for asylum will only add to the crush of applicants, and potentially obscure urgent cases where lives may be in the balance.
And ethically, what is the real motive for HSLDA’s involvement in this case? We can’t legislate morality in our own country; what makes HSLDA think we can do so in other countries? Is this the best way to highlight the benefits of homeschooling in places around the world where it’s currently banned? Is the objective to create a homeschooling sanctuary here in the United States, or to promote the acceptance and practice of homeschooling internationally? Why couldn’t the HSLDA work with our government, and the German government, instead of inviting the Romeike’s to Tennessee and staging an international incident designed to capture more intrigue?
What if the Romeike's were Roman Catholic, or Mormon, or Muslim? Would their homeschooling plight be such a cause célèbre by HSLDA and its supporters?
You may not realize it, but homeschooling exists as a luxury even in America. Most of the people I know who homeschool are white, upper-income suburbanites or exurbanites with strong religious convictions. Nothing wrong with any of that. But many strongly religious families in America cannot afford having one spouse stay home and teach their kids. Many regions of our country have high costs of living that prohibit such economic privilege. Almost all single-parent families are automatically excluded. These are not factors that can easily be abridged simply with greater moral fiber or moving to someplace cheap like Tennessee.
And perhaps most importantly: Do we really believe God has sovereignly called us to this generation – and wherever we are right now – to be His representatives and servants?
What Part Should Faith Play?
If people desire to homeschool because their evangelical convictions contrast with the educational standards imposed by a morally-dark government, does moving out of that country solve anything beyond the personal satisfaction of the parents? Is walking by faith supposed to be easy? Is raising children in a perverse generation impossible? How strong is your faith if you don’t believe your god can honor your honest efforts at teaching your children the tenets of your faith despite the pabulum they may hear in public school?
I’m not talking about the Pilgrims and other immigrants to America who came fleeing religious persecution. Don't their stories contrast starkly with the Romeike’s? Kids get bullied in school all the time. Evangelicals are scorned in communities across America where conservatism is on the wane. Granted, the Romeike’s can’t afford private religious school in Germany, but that doesn’t mean Germany is quashing religious expression. And for years, evangelical parents in America’s largest cities have had to fight all sorts of objectionable public school initiatives like condom distribution. They have to trust that Christ can work in the hearts of their kids when they’re taught the truth at home and in church.
Are we confusing the desire to homeschool one’s kids with the truth of the Gospel? Does having one’s kids “dragged” off to public school fit the definition of persecution that Paul set when he was in prison chains? Does it fit the definition of persecution set by Indonesian churches burned to the ground by Muslim mobs while the police do nothing? Does it fit the definition of persecution set by Christ Himself, enduring brutal lashings and a crown of thorns being wedged into his head?
If you want to come to America, why not apply for a visa? If you want to homeschool your kids, and American visas for Europeans are hard to come by, why not pick another country? If you want to encourage other countries to legalize homeschooling, leverage the homeschooling constituencies in those countries to change laws.
I’m glad the Romeike’s have principles upon which they’re willing to make a stand. But maybe that’s what they need to do – stand, not run.