Homeschooling and Child Custody: When Parents Disagree
- Thursday, July 12, 2012
In a joint legal custody case where parents are deadlocked about education—like Amanda’s family in Kurowski—the odds are less favorable for the homeschooling parent. A judge cannot simply defer to one person’s homeschooling decision, since both parents have an equal say in their child’s education. The “best interests” will prevail. Notably, in the wake of the “fathers’ rights” movement, joint legal custody decrees have become the norm in many states.
Parents wishing to teach at home should avoid joint custody arrangements during divorce or at any child custody hearing. If that is not possible, they should seek a custody agreement that expressly gives the homeschooling parent the right to make educational decisions for the child. A single sentence in the decree could save years of heartache later.
2. The Education Factor
Quality of education, both at public school and at home, is the next major factor. Divorced, unwed, or re-married homeschooling parents must be vigilant in choosing curricula and in record-keeping, because one day these parents might need to show a family court that their education program is academically sound. They also will need expert witnesses who can testify that homeschooling, in general, is an exceptional way to teach. There is plenty of data to support that position.
Modern homeschooling originated with “educational progressives” who believed traditional schools were intellectually stifling. Raymond Moore’s famous study in the 1960s showed that children can learn more in a few hours’ time with a tutor than they can learn in a group setting for an entire day. This truth has been confirmed by the statistics since the 1980s. Comparisons of standardized tests—such as the college admissions Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS)—reveal that homeschoolers score significantly higher than their public school counterparts. They also have greater college acceptance rates and often do better in the university setting.
Unfortunately, some judges have preconceived notions about the quality of home education. Regardless of the statistics, some still believe that parents without a college education are “unqualified” to teach their children. That is why expert witnesses are so important. In Carrano v. Dennison,after hearing extensive expert testimony, a Connecticut court allowed a divorced mother to homeschool. The judge concluded that home education “can be a rich and diversified experience, and one that is uniquely tailor-made for the child.”
3. The Socialization Factor
Family courts are concerned about child socialization in homeschooling. Some judges assume that group education with peers is needed for “proper” social development. In the Kurowski case, for instance, the judge stated, “Enrollment in public school will provide Amanda with an increased opportunity for group learning, group interaction, social problem solving, and exposure to a variety of points of view.” But is that actually the case?
Homeschooling experts argue that harmful peer pressure in public schools can result in negativesocialization. And some studies conclude that adult interaction is equally as important as peer contact. Indeed, taking children out of public school can provide them with healthier socialization from a wider age group.
Homeschooling parents should take socialization into account when making their education plan. They should get kids involved in extracurricular activities, such as sports, music, and youth groups. As Samantha Lebeda writes in the Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues, these activities “teach children how to be productive in relationships and . . . may offer enough or even more than enough peer contact.”
Divorced, unwed, or re-married homeschoolers who give their kids a healthy amount of social contact are better positioned to win their cases in family court. For example, in Brown v. Brown, a Virginia court allowed a father to homeschool, over the objection of his ex-wife. He presented credible expert testimony at the hearing and convinced the judge that his children “engaged in sufficient activities outside the home classroom to develop necessary social skills.”
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