California Appellate Court Ruling -- In re Rachel L.

California Appellate Court Ruling -- In re Rachel L.

Did you know? The sky is not falling in California? Homeschooling is still "legal" there, believe it or not.

by: Attorney Deborah Stevenson,
National Home Education Legal Defense (NHELD)
Posted March 8, 2008

(Please note that the following is not meant to provide legal advice to anyone. It is meant to provide the personal opinion of the author and to provide general educational information about the judicial system. Anyone reading the following opinion is advised to contact an attorney licensed to practice law in California for appropriate legal advice.)

In recent days, there have been a rash of articles in the news proclaiming that a California court declared that parents no longer have a right to homeschool in that state. We caution everyone to go behind the headlines and to read for themselves the entire decision of the court in question. News outlets need to obtain readers and, quite often, provide only part of the story, or, provide their interpretation of the facts. Before believing everything that you read, try to go to the original source of the story, and read the original documents involved. Then, you can ascertain for yourself what the truth is.

In this case, a California court did offer an opinion about the rights of a family to homeschool. In the process of detailing the court's reasoning for its decision, the court made certain statements. The case is entitled: In re Rachel L. et al., Persons Coming Under the Juvenile Court Law, JONATHAN L. and MARY GRACE L., Petitioners, Versus SUPERIOR COURT OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA FOR THE COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES, Respondent. It can be found in its entirety at the state of California's government link to the judicial branch. [Also found here.]

California Court System

The Court making the decision was the Court of Appeals for the second district. In California, there are trial courts, called "Superior Courts"; "Appellate Courts" in six separate districts; and the highest court, the California "Supreme Court".

The case originated in the trial court after the oldest of the family's children reported to government officials that the children were being physically and emotionally mistreated by their father. At some point, the attorney for two of the three minor children in the case petitioned the Appellate Court for extraordinary writ relief, asking the Court to direct the trial court to order that the children be enrolled in a public or private school, and actually attend such a school. Apparently, the attorney for the two children was dissatisfied with the trial court's earlier decision declining to order the children to attend public school. While the trial court found that homeschooling the children received was "meager", the trial court held that it could not order the children to public school because it believed that "parents have a constitutional right to school their children in their own home."

The Appellate Court said the trial court was mistaken, and that California courts already have determined that that "under provisions in the Education Code, parents do not have a constitutional right to home school their children."

The Appellate Court was not stating that the parents do not have a constitutional right to home school their children under the United States Constitution. The Appellate Court was referring to the California Constitution.

Parental Rights Explored

It must also be explained that there is no specific language in the United States Constitution that provides parents with a fundamental "right" to the upbringing and education of their children. The U.S. Constitution is a document limiting the powers of the federal government. It does not grant rights to individuals.

The United States Supreme Court, however, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 [45 S.Ct. 571, 69 L.Ed. 1070, 39 A.L.R. 468, did find in the "penumbra" or shadows of the U.S. Constitution that parents have a fundamental liberty interest in the upbringing and education of their children. Frequently, this decision is cited and parents rely on that "right".

It must be noted, however, that in that very same decision, among others, the United States Supreme Court also stated that even though parents have that fundamental right, the State also has a right to "regulate" the right of parents in their ability to raise and educate their children. That's why we have many state statutes "regulating" homeschooling today.

In the California case, In re Rachel L., the California Appeals Court cited the United States Supreme Court's decision in the Pierce case. In other words, it recognized that parents have a fundamental right to the upbringing and education of their children under the U.S. Constitution, but the Appeals Court, more importantly for its purposes, cited that section of Pierce and another Supreme Court case that more particularly describes the right of the State to "regulate" the education of children. The California Court stated,

"The Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 [45 S.Ct. 571, 69 L.Ed. 1070, 39 A.L.R. 468 (1925), held that: 'No question is raised concerning the power of the state reasonably to regulate all schools, to inspect, supervise and examine them, their teachers and pupils; to require that all children of proper age attend some school, that teachers shall be of good moral character and patriotic disposition, that certain studies plainly essential to good citizenship must be taught, and that nothing be taught which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare.'

[¶] Included in the laws governing the educational program were those regulating the attendance of children at school and the power of the state to enforce compulsory education of children within the state at some school is beyond question. (Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 [43 S.Ct. 625, 628, 67 L.Ed. 1042, 29 A.L.R. 1446]; Ex parte Liddell, 93 Cal. 633, 640 [29 P. 251]." (In re Shinn (1961) 195 Cal.App.2d 683, 686-687.)"

The Court also cited the applicable section of California's State Constitution, as follows:

"Article IX, section 1 of California's Constitution states: "A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the Legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement."

Notice that in the California Constitution, there is no provision stating that parents have a fundamental right to "homeschool." Most state Constitutions do not have such a provision. Again, please remember, even the United States Constitution does not have such a provision.

The fundamental Constitutional right of parents in the upbringing and education of their child stems only from the United States Supreme Court's opinion that such a right exists in the shadows of the Constitution. That opinion could change at any time. This has been true since the Pierce case was first decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The United States Supreme Court always, since it first considered the issue in Pierce, has held that the State can limit the fundamental right of parents in the upbringing and education of the children by adoption of state statutes and regulations.

After recognizing the Pierce case and the State's right to regulate the education of the children, the Appeals Court in In re Rachel L. went into some detail describing how California decided to "regulate" the education of children. It cited the state's compulsory education statute along with the provisions allowing children to be exempt from compulsory attendance in a public school, and pointed out that the California courts have upheld those regulations as Constitutional in other cases.

"Full-time public school education for persons between the ages of six and eighteen is compulsory under California's compulsory education law (Ed. Code, § 48200 et seq.),(fn2) "and each parent, guardian, or other person having control or charge of the pupil shall send the pupil to the public full-time day school . . . and for the full time designated as the length of the school day by the governing board of the school district" (§ 48200).

Exemptions to compulsory public school education are made for, among others, children who (1) attend a private full-time day school (§ 48222) or (2) are instructed by a tutor who holds a valid state teaching credential for the grade being taught (§ 48224). These provisions of the Education Code (in their predecessor section numbers) were held to be constitutional in People v. Turner (1953) 121 Cal.App.2d Supp. 861, 865 et seq., ("Turner"), and an appeal to the United States Supreme Court from that decision was dismissed for want of a substantial federal question in Turner v. People of the State of California (1954) 347 U.S. 972 [98 L.Ed. 1112, 74 S.Ct. 785]."

In re Shinn & People v. Turner

The Appeals court went on to discuss other cases previously decided on this issue, specifically: In re Shinn (1961) 195 Cal.App.2d 683, 686-687 and People v. Turner (1953) 121 Cal. App. 2d Supp. 861, 865 et seq.. The Court noted that in the Shinn case, the children were found to be habitually truant and were made wards of the juvenile court because their parents violated the compulsory education laws in effect at that time. The Court also noted that in the Turner case, "the court affirmed a judgment of conviction of parents who refused to send their children to public school and instead provided them with instruction that did not come within the exemptions to the compulsory public school education law." The Appeals Court was reasoning that this is not the first time that a court in California has upheld the state's right to regulate the education of the children and has restricted the rights of parents.

In fact, the Court took pains to explain that the court in the Turner case already considered the fundamental Constitutional right of parents to educate their children as cited in Pierce and held at that time that the statute regulating the education of children was Constitutional. To quote the Appeals court:

"The parents in Turner contended that former section 16601 was unconstitutional because it deprived them of a right to determine how and where their children should be educated. Citing Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) 268 U.S. 510 [69 L.Ed. 1070, 45 S.Ct. 571], the Turner court stated the statute would be unconstitutional if it required parents to place their children in public schools and had no alternative means of education, but the court noted that former section 16601 permitted such alternative means and therefore was not unconstitutional. The court specifically rejected the argument that it is unconstitutional to require that parents possess the qualifications prescribed by statute if the parents seek to act as their children's teachers, saying that nothing in the Pierce opinion declared or intimated such a finding of unconstitutionality. (Turner, supra, 121 Cal.App.2d Supp. at p. 865.)"

The Appeals Court in In re Rachel L. quoted liberally from the Turner case. It said that because of the requirements outlined in the state's education statutes, the Turner court previously decided that "[h]ome education, regardless of its worth, is not the legal equivalent of attendance in school in the absence of instruction by qualified private tutors." The Appeals Court then concluded that it saw no reason to strike down the currently existing education statutes.

In other words, the Appeals Court said the legislature adopted statutes regulating the parents' right to educate their children. Those statutes are still valid and parents must comply with them. It also noted that if parents do not comply with those statutes, they may be subject to the penalties imposed by other statutes, including the penalties of having a criminal complaint filed against them, being found guilty of an infraction, being ordered to pay a fine and to complete a parent education and counseling program, or being ordered to enroll their children in a public school and provide proof of enrollment.

Having analyzed the applicable law, the Appeals Court then addressed the particular facts in the case as applied to the law. The parents claimed that they were homeschooling legally because their children were enrolled through the Sunland Christian School. The Appeals Court found that the homeschooling the parents provided did not meet the specific exemptions provided in the law. The Court stated:

"[t]he parents have not demonstrated that mother has a teaching credential such that the children can be said to be receiving an education from a credentialed tutor. It is clear that the education of the children at their home, whatever the quality of that education, does not qualify for the private full-time day school or credentialed tutor exemptions from compulsory education in a public full-time day school."

The court explained that even if the Sunland Christian School was a public charter school, enrollment in it did not "excuse the statutory requirement that tutors be credentialed if their students are to come within the tutor exemption to compulsory public school education."

For all intents and purposes, incorrectly or not, the Appeals Court attempted to apply the facts of this case to the specific requirements of the current statutes. The Court also found no section of the statutes provides for parents to teach their children by "independent study" through private schools. The key fact cited by the court was the fact that "the children are taught at home by a non-credentialed person" when the statute calls for the person to be credentialed.

Wisconsin v. Yoder

Citing another United States Supreme Court case, Wisconsin v. Yoder, the parents also argued that they had a Constitutional right under the first amendment to educate their children based on their religious beliefs. The Appeals Court rejected that argument.

The Appeals Court noted that the Supreme Court in Yoder court rejected the notion that parents have a universal right to refuse to obey a state's compulsory education law. Yet, the Supreme Court in Yoder allowed the parents in that case, who were devout members of the Amish sect, to keep their children out of the public schools to educate them in Amish ways. The Supreme Court found that attendance of those children in the public school took them away from their religious community at a time in their lives when they are to acquire Amish attitudes and integrate into the Amish religious community, and that compulsory public high school education for the Amish children would "ultimately result in the destruction of the Old Order Amish church community as it exists in the United States today."

The Appeals Court, in this case, found that the parents' religious beliefs were not sufficiently comparable to the facts in the Yoder case. The Appeals Court found that the parents' "assertions are not the quality of evidence that permits us to say that application of California's compulsory public school education law to them violates their First Amendment rights."

In other words, the Appeals Court said parents must comply with currently existing statutes and the assertions of the parents in this case that they had a Constitutional right to homeschool their children based on their religious beliefs was not sufficient to overcome the requirements under California's compulsory education statutes.

Ultimately, the Appeals Court held that it had no actual facts before it to determine whether these parents actually complied with the California statutes or not. So, the Court sent the case back to the trial court for another hearing so that the parents could present evidence to prove that they are in compliance with California statutes. The Court also held that the trial court should order the parents to comply with the statutes and unless they had a legal ground for not doing so, the trial court must order the parents "(1) enroll their children in a public full-time day school, or a legally qualified private full-time day school and (2) see to it that the children receive their education in such school." At the new hearing before the trial court, then, the parents could provide evidence that they are in compliance with the statutes, thus giving the trial court a legal ground for not ordering the children to enroll in a public or private school.

The public needs to understand that this decision is only binding on the parties in this particular case. Even so, the parents in this case may not necessarily have to send their children to public school. They may be able to prove they are in compliance with the law such that the trial court will have no grounds to order the children back to public or private school. If the parents cannot prove they are in compliance, and if the trial court does order the children back to public or private school, the parents still could appeal that decision to California's Supreme Court.

Does this case act as a precedent? Yes, but it is only a precedent for a trial court that may hear a similar case in the future. Even at that, the trial court could find one or more facts to be different in that future case such that it may decide that this Appeals Court case is not of any precedential value. Courts do that all the time. Or, the Appeals Court in another case may declare its decision in In re Rachel L. to be reversed at some point in the future. Courts do this less often, but they do it nonetheless.

Or, more importantly the public has other recourse with elected officials. The parents in California, or any state, at any time, regarding any Court decision, may ask the legislature to clarify the state law and to overturn any Court decision.

The point is, contrary to popular belief and fear mongering headlines, as you can see from a careful reading of the Appeals Court's actual decision, the Court did not rule that "homeschooling in California is illegal". It would appear that nothing really has changed as a result of this decision. The Appeals Court did not overturn California's existing statutes. The Court upheld them. If parents comply with the statutes, they are just as free to homeschool as they were before this decision.

The lesson here is: don't believe everything you hear or read. Go to the original source. Read it for yourself. Arm yourself with the truth and then you will be prepared to act appropriately.

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Attorney Deborah Stevenson, Executive Director
National Home Education Legal Defense (NHELD)

Judy Aron, Director of Research
National Home Education Legal Defense (NHELD)

Telephone: (860) 354-3590
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Bulletin #60     |     California Appellate Court Ruling     |     03/08/08