Cyberschools - the rest of the story
by Robin Bernhoft, MD
Member, Advisory Board, St Thomas More Home Educators, Seattle, WA
The Catholic Church teaches that parents bear primary responsibility for their children's education. This makes the government schools' "Parents as Partners" mantra a demotion in parental status. We parents are not "partners" with teachers; they work under our authority, in the view of the Church, and also in American Constitutional law, as expressed by a series of 20th century Supreme Court decisions.
Unfortunately, the National Education Association has been pushing since 1988 for elimination of homeschooling and absorbtion of private schooling into the government system. (Their list of annual resolutions can be downloaded at www.nea.org; it makes instructive reading, as it spells out the union's long term goals. See especially B26 & B29.)
But we Catholics are called to something different. The Catholic Church teaches that parents are obligated to obtain:
"True education [which is] directed towards the formation of the human person in view of his final end and the good of that society to which he belongs and in the duties of which he will, as an adult, have a share."
Education like that is not available in the government schools, nor is it available in many Catholic parish schools, which is why so many Catholic parents homeschool.
Pius XI described the sort of Catholic school we should trust with our children:
"To be [a fit place for Catholic students], it is necessary that all the teaching and the whole organization of the school, its teachers, syllabus and textbooks of every kind, be regulated by the Christian spirit, under the direction and maternal supervision of the Church; so that religion may be in very truth the foundation and the crown of youth's entire training; and this applies to every grade of school, not only the elementary, but the intermediate and the high institutions of learning as well.... It is necessary not only that religious instruction be given to the young at certain fixed times, but also that every other subject taught be permeated with Christian piety."
Obviously, education like that will not be found in the government system, nor in many parish schools.
Does that mean that every child must homeschool? Not necessarily, although the American Bishops were clearly instructed in in 1955 (the "good old days") that parents:
"...who allow their children to frequent schools where it is impossible to avoid the loss of souls or who, notwithstanding the existence of a well-organized neighboring Catholic school or the possibility of having their children educated elsewhere in a Catholic school, entrust them to the public schools without sufficient reason and without having taken the necessary precautions to avoid the danger of [spiritual] perversion; it is a well-known fact that, according to Catholic moral teaching, should they persist in their attitude, cannot receive absolution in the Sacrament of Penance."
Obviously, the Church takes very seriously our responsibility to provide an authentic Catholic education for our children. Seriously enough to deny absolution to parents who neglect it.
But what is a parent to do? Parish schools have been using the same curriculum texts as government schools since the 1980s. Those teachers-union-and-ACLU-approved texts are not exactly "permeated with Christian piety." And what does all this background have to do with "cyberschools?"
There is much more to the cyberschool issue than abstract fears of losing the "purity" of homeschooling. Legal issues which threaten the future of homeschooling.
But before we get to those issues, some points of legal clarification. In Washington state law (and most state laws), home schooling is essentially defined as parent-directed education occurring within the home using curricula obtained at parental expense from any source of parental choosing. Home-based students (at least in Washington state) may take occasional classes (e.g. band or chemistry) or participate in sports at the local government school without losing their legal status as homeschoolers.
But students who participate in cyberschooling, in which they are supplied money, materials and/or curriculum by the government agency administering the cyberschool (in Washington state, usually the local school district), are classified under state law as public school students, not as homeschoolers. They are public school students doing public school work at home, and their activities are covered by the laws relating to public schools, not to home schools.
Conversely, homeschooling families with one or more students attending brick-and-mortar public schools (e.g. special education for students with disabilities) retain full homeschooling status for their homeschooled children.
These legal distinctions are important, because families who participate in government cyberschools by law make their home an extension of the public school, subject to inspection and supervision (including child-raising activities) within the home. They surrender their rights of privacy. Local districts in Washington state may not be enforcing these powers at the moment, but they have them.
And districts will be able to enforce these powers whenever they wish. It's already in the law, and districts in other states are using them.
Private cyber-curricula (such as William Bennett's K12) do not come with government inspectors, but since they are designed to be sold to government schools, and have presumeably passed ACLU/Teachers' Union scrutiny, they are not in any way "permeated with Christian piety" and are in fact aligned with the national attitudinal standards. They are not to be recommended for those reasons. They clearly do not meet the standard set by the Church any better than government-provided curricula do.
Private religious-based curricula (Seton, Kolbe and the like) contain no government strings, have no impact on homeschooling status, and are usually "permeated with Christian piety."
A second problem by now is pretty clear: Education funded by public money cannot be religious in content. Also, it cannot be conducted without public accountability and direct public supervision and control. The fact that local districts in Washington state are not enforcing this currently means nothing; the law remains the same, and in other states (notably Alaska) the home supervision and religious censorship issues came to a head as soon as enough homeschoolers were trapped within the government cyberschooling system.
Legislators in Alaska concluded that if they were funding homeschoolers, then they needed to regulate them according to the same secularizing laws applied to the government schools. And they did. (See recent publications by the Homeschool Legal Defense Association for details on Alaska and other states.)
Which brings me back to the NEA's policy of bringing all education under government control. It is obvious, now, after a decade or so of school vouchers in various states that government money brings government control; religious schools that take vouchers stop offering religious education, take down their crucifixes, end mandatory chapel. Vouchers are a Trojan horse to destroy religious education and bring church schools under NEA control.
In exactly the same way, cyberschools in other parts of the country have become a Trojan horse to bring homeschoolers under NEA control. That participants in Washington state AT THE MOMENT do not have to report each week to a supervising teacher, nor follow that teacher's curriculum nor take the public school attitude assessment tests means only one thing: there aren't enough homeschoolers in the cyber-trap. When there are, the government will spring it shut. The teacher's union goal is to regulate homeschooling out of existence. They intend to use the cyberschools to make that happen.
Lest anyone think this line of concern unnecessarily suspicious, it has already happened repeatedly across the country. For example, Jerry Falwell's Liberty University was told in around 1990 that accepting students with Tuition Assistance Grants would not influence the university's religious integrity. However, when the proportion of students with TAG grants reached 40%, the government informed the university that they could no longer require faculty to be believing Christians, they could no longer require chapel, they could no longer prohibit clubs which offend Baptist moral standards.
Grove City College, a protestant school in Pennsylvania, faced the same pressure because students paid tuition with government loans; Grove City opted out of government money, raised private money for scholarships and kept their religious integrity.
There are recent cases of "truancy" charges in several states against parents who returned to homeschooling their children when cyberschooling proved too invasive and anti-religious. There is a recent case of a girl in Pennsylvania with high SAT scores who sought admission to a public high school for her senior year, so she could take a technical subject. The school district refused to recognize her homeschool credits and put her in the freshman class. She lost her court appeal. Parents will not find it easy to leave cyberschools, once the screws are tightened.
The ACLU and the NEA are not going to go away, nor do they have the best religious or educational interests of your child at heart.
Five hundred dollars and the use of a computer are not much, in exchange for the freedom to offer our children a Catholic education.
1. Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissiumus Educationis), no.1., Documents of Vatican II [back]
2. Pope Pius XI: Divinus Illius Magistri (December 31, 1929), in The Church and the Reconstruction of the Modern World, the social encyclicals of Pius XI, Image Books, New York, 1957, p.73. [back]
3. Instruction of the Sacred Congregation of Religious on Co-education, December 8, 1955. [back]
Dr. Bernhoft is Chairman of the National Parents Commission, an educational apostolate dedicated to presenting the Culture of Life to individuals and families in simple, understandable terms. Dr. Bernhoft is a signatory of the Proclamation for the Separation of School and State. Dr. and Mrs. Bernhoft live in Everett, WA, and home school their six children. He may be contacted at Info@NationalParents.org.
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Updated December 23, 2008