Schools and Homeschoolers: Unequal When Threatened with Court over Student Deficiencies

In a decision that got only a brief bit of attention in the press, the courts have reaffirmed the perverse logic of forcing children to attend classes even when those children are not learning what is being taught. A class-action lawsuit claimed that Detroit’s most underperforming schools were underfunded, understaffed, and neglected—the classrooms were infested with pests—and that created an environment where learning was deliberately undermined for these children.

“The abysmal conditions and appalling outcomes in plaintiffs’ schools are unprecedented,” the complaint said.”

A judge in Detroit recently ruled in this case that access to literacy or even to a “minimally adequate education” is not a Constitutional right.

Doesn’t this logic nullify the alleged purpose of compulsory schooling—that ignorant children are compelled to attend school to be taught to be good citizens because schools know how to teach children properly?

I use the word ignorant because that’s how Horace Mann persuaded his fellow citizens to give up the personal freedom of children (compulsory attendance laws were not without controversy when they were introduced in the United States): “A republic cannot long remain ignorant and free, hence the necessity of universal popular education.”

If schools can’t acknowledge their role in negative student outcomes, why can they endlessly tout that only their methods improve student behavior, test scores, and social skills and make children good citizens? As usual, the fix is in for the institutions: If the student graduates and does well, the school gets a lot of the credit. If not, the student gets all the blame.

The legal system acknowledges that even though the government can use the force of law to make children attend school, the school cannot be held responsible for negative academic outcomes. This logic goes way back, and was noted by John Holt when discussing an important 1972 court case in Teach Your Own, about a family who sued the San Francisco public school system for failing to teach their child to read after 13 years of attendance and graduating from high school.

“The California State Court of Appeals rejected the parents’ claim of the school system’s failure to educate their son. The court declared it was impossible for any person, most of all the courts, to set guidelines for ‘proper’ academic procedures which must be followed by all schools and all teachers. ‘Unlike the activity of the highway, or the marketplace, classroom methodology affords no readily acceptable standard of care, or cause, or injury. The science of pedagogy itself is fraught with different and conflicting theories of how or what a child should be taught, and any layman might, and commonly does, have his own emphatic views on the subject,’ read the court’s opinion.”

46 years ago, John Holt concluded, “The court was, of course, quite right in saying this. But what then becomes of the claim, which the schools make all the time, that they alone know how to teach children?”

Both these decisions also beg the question: If schools aren’t able to teach some children to read why can’t we create publicly funded alternatives to school for those children? Children and adults learn outside of classrooms in many ways, and most move in and out of classroom learning throughout their lives as they see fit. This is a well-documented feature of self-directed learning that challenges Mann’s assumption about the need to compel school attendance: Freedom does not necessarily result in ignorance.

Homeschooling and unschooling are some alternatives to school, and they are growing and generating new types of services and places for children that are totally different from our current schools. But there are many more variations possible, especially if more teachers, parents, and students become empowered to create local alternatives to conventional schooling.