Home Schooling and the U.S. Constitution
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed June 20, 2016
Due Process Fundamental Rights
In Meyer v. Nebraska and Farrington v. Tokushige, U.S. Supreme Court cases of the 1920s, the fundamental right of parents to direct the education of their children was established. These decisions are still heavily cited today by those claiming the right to home school in federal and state courts. They contend that because these compulsory schooling decisions have given parents this right, its denial violates the right of due process. If a right is deemed to be fundamental, it is based on the premise that it is provided for in the U. S. Constitution.
Due Process Vagueness
Under the Due Process clause, parents of home schooled children have contended the compulsory attendance statutes of their state were so vague and ambiguous, they were unconstitutional because a reasonably intelligent person would not be able to determine when he was violating the law and the person deciding whether such violation had occurred had no clear standards to go by in making his ruling.
Frequently, the litigation in this area revolves around the meaning of such terms as "equivalent education" or "private school." The meaning of these terms are important in these cases because it is upon these and other similarly worded phrases that states have granted exemptions from their compulsory attendance laws and their penalties.
Due Process Arbitrariness
The Due Process clause has also been used to challenge these laws by claims that officials have too much leeway in performing their duty to apply the law. Although court cases involving this issue have not been decided in favor of the parents, the U. S. Supreme Court in a context other than home instruction has said that any decision involving a fundamental right must be made by an impartial party. In spite of subsequent U. S. Supreme Court cases which affirmed this principle in home schooling cases, the parents were unsuccessful.
By definition, a claim for exemption based on free exercise can only be used, if at all, by those who have home instruction for religious reasons. The only U. S. Supreme Court case that has ever decided any case involving home teaching is Wisconsin v. Yoder. Decided in 1972, it involved a group of Amish who challenged the compulsory attendance laws of their state. For three centuries, the members of this religious sect taught their children at home in accordance with their religious belief that education in a public school would violate the tenets of their faith. The Amish pointed out this home education gave their children the skills to function effectively in a society that was isolated from the general public.
Unlike the decisions in Meyer v. Pierce, and Farrington v. Tokshige the Amish in Yoder did not rely upon due process grounds, but on the belief that compulsory schooling laws of Wisconsin violated the Free Exercise clause of the U. S. Constitution prohibiting interference by the government with practices found to be religious and not just personal preferences. The Court balanced the interest of the state in educating children against the right of the Amish to practice their religious beliefs and concluded the state of Wisconsin had failed to show the state interest of educating its citizens in what is clearly the society of the general public outweighed the interest of the Amish in not having governmental interference with their religious practices.
In weighing and balancing the interests of these opposing parties, the Court sharply limited the use of Yoder to persons engaged in home schooling for future cases. The Court noted the three-century tradition of home education and that its content did enable Amish children to be able to function as adults in their separate society. Therefore, the state interest present in this case was rendered irrelevant by the Amish isolation from the general society. Through the use of this balancing test and its limited application of the Free Exercise clause to an unusual religious group, the court could affirm the interest of the state in educating its citizens, allowing the compulsory attendance laws to stand. In fact, lower federal court cases subsequent to Yoder have decided against other religious groups that instruct their children at home because they lacked the isolation of the Amish from modern life.
With this decision, a principle was established giving in theory greater protection to those who gave home instruction for religious reasons. However, the requirement that the belief of the party claiming Free Exercise protection was religious, and not one of personal preference or philosophy, and that the compulsory attendance law would severely impact such a belief would in practice be difficult to satisfy. The weight of cases subsequent to Yoder indicates it is far easier for the state to show the regulation fulfills a compelling or merely legitimate interest.
Only two state supreme court cases decided after Yoder involving home schooling parents using the Free Exercise clause resulted in a successful conclusion for them. Those states are Michigan in Michigan v. DeJonge, decided in 1993, and North Carolina in Delconte v. State of North Carolina, rendered in 1985.
There have been few successful cases on such claims, but a notable example is In re Falk, a New York Family Court case decided in 1981. So far there have been no state or United States Supreme Court cases upholding the use of the right of free speech under the 1st Amendment as a defense by parents against these laws.
Right to Privacy
The few cases that have used this defense for prosecution under compulsory attendance laws have not found courts to be receptive to it. The one case decided in favor of the parents was a trial court decision in Massachusetts that is not binding outside the state or to any great extent within that jurisdiction.
The Ninth Amendment says that the rights of the citizens of each state are not limited by those listed in the Constitution. The contention by parents that a right to home school is implied by this provision has only been agreed with by Perchemlides v. Frizzle, the case mentioned under the right of privacy.
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