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Understanding Homeschool Laws

This is a reprint of a popular article published in 2009.

Nearly 2,400 years ago, Aristotle explained why a society ruled by laws is better than one ruled by judges.  Read his explanation carefully: 

“First, to find one man, or a few men, who are sensible persons and capable of legislating and administering justice is easier than to find a large number. Next, laws are made after long consideration, whereas decisions in the courts are given at short notice, which makes it hard for those who try the case to satisfy the claims of justice and expediency. The weightiest reason of all is that the decision of the lawgiver is not particular but prospective and general, whereas members of the assembly and the jury find it their duty to decide on definite cases brought before them. They will often have allowed themselves to be so much influenced by feelings of friendship or hatred or self-interest that they lose any clear vision of the truth and have their judgment obscured by considerations of personal pleasure or pain. In general, then, the judge should, we say, be allowed to decide as few things as possible.” 

We live in a society that has well-drawn education laws and they protect parents from the tyranny of individual judges or officials who offer advice and warnings based on their own private opinion rather than education law.  Unfortunately, many Americans don’t know the laws and accept the opinion of the individual with the same authority as the law itself.  Many Americans are also afraid to disagree with someone because they feel unprepared to argue.  Many (most?) home school families have allowed themselves to be advised, warned and even bullied into bad curriculum decisions by individuals who they believed were speaking on behalf of the law.   The result is seen in the popular chaos and busy-ness of home school families:  the public school brought home.
Understanding the requirements of national and local education regulations is essential to making prudent choices in education.  If we allow ourselves to be misled by someone’s faulty notion of the law, or personal disapproval of our objectives, we will struggle in home schooling.  Essential studies will be crowded out by “state requirements” and sound Christian priorities will be compromised. 

Many of the families who contact the CLAA with fears about the simplicity of our curriculum are hindered by this common problem.  This article is intended to provide clarity on three important issues in education law and its application to Catholic home schooling.
As stated above, Americans enjoy a well-drawn system of laws and this is no more evident than in the realm of education.  There are many irresponsible and reckless parents who, if left to themselves, would all but abandon their children to the streets.  In fact, earlier in American history, this is exactly what took place and the government made it illegal. Public schools were established and attendance was made mandatory for all children whose education was not already provided for.
The compulsory attendance laws made it illegal for children not to be educated in America and the early public schools literally emptied the streets of neglected children, providing them with a basic education that provided many of them with opportunities they would not have had access to otherwise.
These laws, however, were not written for children belonging to families that already provided them with a quality education, whether it was from a church or privately maintained schoolhouse.  The government schools were a measure of protection for the poor and neglected who needed them–for the boy “Ignorance” and the girl “Want”, as Dickens portrayed them in the Christmas Carol.
Since the 1930s, however, this original purpose of government education has been hijacked by modernists who view the public schools as a means of social change rather than a means of protection for the neglected.  While the law speaks only of the mandatory provisions for those in need, the modernists twist the law to become a set of standards for all children.  Despite the popularity of this interpretation, it is not the law as a simple reading will prove. 
Therefore, our first duty is to be conscious of the danger of applying the government school provisions as requirements for children who do not need the government’s educational programs.  For an illustrative example, let us consider what would happen to the five year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he moved to America and was subjected to our government curriculum standards.
At five years old, Mozart was performing in royal courts on the keyboard and violin.  At that age, he would have already fulfilled the entire goal of the National Standards for Arts Education, which is:
“that a comprehensive understanding of one or more of the arts be accomplished by each student throughout the K-12 program.”
Nevertheless, we might find a local school official concerned that the boy had not experienced an “age-appropriate” kindergarten music class in which he played freely among his peers with musical “instruments” like wood blocks, rhythm sticks and egg-shakers.  We might then find his mother searching through home school catalogs and local home school bulletin boards to find a good “Rhythm Sticks for Catholics” class to add.  Why?
First, the school official offered his own misguided opinion as though it were the law and in doing so misapplied the law.  Second, because Mrs. Mozart was foolishly submissive to the private opinion of an official rather than the law of her state to which the official is accountable.  In the end, poor little Wolfgang would be humiliated and bored by his new class and the Mozart family would be out $100.  Worst of all, the family’s status before the law would not have changed after all of this wasted energy, time and money. 
Most home school families are struggling because of this error, even to a greater extent than Mozart’s poor mother.  A child raised in an intelligent, loving and active Christian family exceeds most government standards through their ordinary activities.  The regulations of formal education do not apply and documentation of their satisfaction outside of school is all that is needed.
The government’s educational regulations, once again, are excellent.  To step back and realize that hundreds of thousands of American children, whose parents cared nothing for their education or future, were provided with a tax-funded education that saved many of them from their parents’ and community’s harmful influences is remarkable.  When we look at the content of the government’s requirements we find that it not only provides for job-training, but for cultural and civic life as well.  This again, is commendable for the group the laws are intended to serve, but they need not form part of our children’s formal schooling.
The normal state curriculum focuses on some combination of the following curriculum areas:

  1. Arts Education
  2. Computer / Technology Skills
  3. English Language Arts
  4. Guidance
  5. Healthful Living
  6. Information Skills
  7. Mathematics
  8. Second Language
  9. Science
  10. Social Studies
  11. Career Technical Education

Thinking of all of the “stuff” offered at the local public school may wrongly intimidate us as we consider our children’s home education.  We err in thinking that because we do not provide formal instruction in a specific area we are failing to meet the requirements.  Remember, the government education requirements are intended to protect the neglected, not limit or control the life and learning of those privately educated.  Let’s consider an example once again.
Let us say that Thomas Smith is a ten year old boy in a faithful Catholic family.  He enjoys regular access to the sacraments, serves at the altar and participates in youth group activities throughout the Church year.  The family enjoys a stable home life with Dad modeling a good work ethic and unselfish disposition, Mom lovingly caring for the children and managing the children’s daily studies. The family enjoys the benefits of Christian culture:  good music, good literature, good films, etc.. Thomas takes piano lessons and is always reading books on nature and history as well as the “canon” of children’s literature.  Thomas has to bear his own burdens around the home, helping with chores and caring for his own things.  He enjoys time for bike-riding, swimming, and maybe even a rec. league sport. 

Thomas’ Catholic life fulfills well over half of the goals of the government curriculum objectives.  Of course, hardly any of these activities, lessons, experiences and habits are documented or considered a part of his formal education by most families.  Thus, by ignoring all of the advantages Thomas enjoys and comparing his formal studies to those of the public schools, they feel pressure to match the school textbook-for-textbook and course-for-course.  This is absurd.
Remember, the fundamental assumption is that the children for whom the government education regulations are intended are not receiving these lessons at home in the ordinary course of family and community life. These disadvantaged students are offered a replication of them in an artificial community known as “school”.  Those students who enjoy the reality do not need to study them in pictures and books.
Once Thomas’s everyday experiences are documented, and maybe organized a bit better, we will find that all he needs by way of formal instruction is the classical liberal arts.  This is the reason for the CLAA’s simple study program: it’s all that a child in a responsible Catholic family needs. 

Certain specialized or college-preparatory courses, like laboratory sciences, are best studied in a college laboratory, not at home, so they should be arranged accordingly at the appropriate time.  There is no need, however, for children in cultured families to add formal studies that are superfluous for them or to admit lower intellectual goals than those which match their quality of life. 

One of the most misleading of all issues faced by home school families has to do with the definitions of terms in school legal documents.  When we look at the state curriculum requirements we see lists that include the number of “units” of English and Math and Social Studies, etc.. For example, the New York state curriculum lists the following:

  1. English (4 units)
  2. Social Studies (4 units)
  3. American history (1 unit)
  4. Government (1/2 unit)
  5. Economics (1/2 unit)
  6. Mathematics (2 units)
  7. Science (2 units)
  8. Art and/or music (1 unit)
  9. Health Education (1/2 unit)
  10. Physical Education (2 units)

Home school families tend to look at these lists and see: four years of English, four years of Social Studies, two years of Math, etc., and judge this to be an impressive amount of work!  However, we are not comparing apples with apples.  What we have failed to do is ascertain the definition of a “unit” (the foundation of all mathematics!), which is the basis for this entire system.
The “unit” referred to in the NY state curriculum is defined as “6,480 minutes of instruction per school year”.  Now, let’s do the math:

  • 6,480 min./year divided by 60 min./hour = 108 hrs./year
  • 108 hrs./yr, divided by 36 wks in a school year = 3 hrs/wk
  • 3 hrs/wk, divided by 5 school days per wk = 36 minutes per day

When we read the law rightly, we find that by a “unit” is meant only 36 minutes of class per day and that for only 36 weeks of the year!  Furthermore, when we consider the fact that a typical high school class meets for about 40 minutes per day for 180 days, we learn further that this “unit” of instruction also includes all of the administrative tasks of normal school life:  taking attendance, collecting papers, reviewing old materials, taking quizzes and tests, handling disciplinary issues, etc..  Thus, the “unit” becomes even less impressive and is by no means equivalent to a year of intense home study.
So, let’s re-phrase the state requirement in terms of class time:

  1. English (36 min./day for 4 school calendar years)
  2. Social Studies (36 min./day for 4 school calendar years)
  3. American history (36 min./day for 1 school calendar year)
  4. Government (36 min./day for 1/2 school calendar year)
  5. Economics (36 min./day for 1/2 school calendar year)
  6. Mathematics (36 min./day for 2 school calendar years)
  7. Science (36 min./day for 2 school calendar years)
  8. Art and/or music (36 min./day for 1 school calendar year)
  9. Health Education (36 min./day for 1/2 school calendar year)
  10. Physical Education (36 min./day for 2 school calendar years)

Let us now consider how little this is. 
If a child takes piano lessons and practices for a total of 2 hours per throughout the entire year (52 weeks), he would fulfill the state’s high school Music requirement with 1 year of his normal weekly piano lessons and he would probably continue these for another few years!  
Again, a student who plays in a local youth soccer league may play 10 games per year that last 2 hours each.  Add to this 10 hours of team practice and we have 30 hours of Physical Education per year.  In addition to this, the student spends an average of 20 minutes per day playing actively (riding bikes, swimming, playing on playground, etc.).  This student has thus completed one “unit” of Physical Education.  

The situation is even more striking for CLAA students.  The CLAA Grammar program requires 1-2 hours of study per day and covers English Language Arts along with Foreign Language (Latin/Greek).  Over three years, a CLAA student completes approximately 600-1200 hours of language arts study.  That is equivalent to 5.5 – 11 units of “Language Arts” in the state curriculum, and we haven’t studied Dialectic, Humanities, Rhetoric or Literature yet!  

When we maintain a consistent value for the “unit” of education the government requires, we will find that a normal CLAA student exceeds the state regulations many times over–often without any formal school study! 

By keeping these three simple issues in mind whenever we discuss curriculum planning, we will be freed from the absurd notion that we may somehow be falling short of state requirements.  By simply documenting our family’s normal activities, we will demonstrate our children’s satisfaction of a large percentage of the state’s required studies and will be free to focus our formal schooling on those subjects appropriate for our children:  the classical liberal arts.  

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