Here, courtesy of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), is one of those court cases which most people who aren't involved in the specific issues it touches on (homeschooling/home education, political asylum) will probably never notice at all - but which has profound implications.
In one sense, its a simple case: Germany forbids homeschooling of school age children in all except a very, very few exceptional circumstances. Uwe and Hannelore Romeike wanted to homeschool their children and wouldn't take no for an answer. After being threatened with jail time and having their children taken to school by the police, the Romeikes left Germany for the USA. When they got here, they applied for political asylum, claiming the German government's treatment of them and other homeschooling families amounts to political persecution. The immigration judge agreed, and granted them asylum. The US government disagreed, and sucessfully appealed the ruling. They appealed, and now the case is before a Federal Appeals Court (1 step below the Supreme Court, where it could well end up if both parties are determined not to give up).
"Simple" - but profoundly important. At its heart are some of the most important questions for any society:
Who do children belong to - society or their families?
What can society/the state legitimately demand of families?
Germany bans homeschooling to "counteract the development of religious and philosophically motivated parallel societies.” (German Supreme Court). With incidents of "home-grown terrorism" occuring, and concerns about communities totally disconnected from their societies, this is understandable. But is there not a equal or greater danger from a state that asserts the right to enforce one society and mode of thinking?
I should probably "lay my cards on the table". My wife was home-schooled throughout her education, as were her younger siblings (her elder siblings went to public school for a while, and were later homeschooled). In fact, my parents-in-law were heavily involved in the political campaign in the 1980s that made legal homeschooling much easier in Iowa. We are currently homeschooling our 5 year old daughter. As the compulsory education age in Iowa is 6, this year our decision to homeschool her is an entirely private matter. If we continue, we will have to choose which of the 3 methods that Iowa law allows for state oversight of homeschooling we will follow. We probably will continue, but that's not absolutely certain. Several of the most intelligent (and best read) people I know have been homeschooled. I also, however, know people whose current level of education and knowledge is very much in spite of being homeschooled, rather than because of it.
I believe homeschooling can provide a great education. I do not, however, believe that it is always the best thing for every child and family in every circumstance, or that I have a moral or religious obligation to homeschool.
But here's the point: for those who do feel that it is a religious or philosophical obligation, or who simply decide it is what is best for thier child - should the government be able to prevent them?
At its heart, this is a classic question of the balance of liberty and obligation between the individual or family and the rights of society represented by the State. Does society have a right to control the education of children? Personally, I think not. Children, ultimately, belong to their families, and only secondarily to "society". The alternative opens a door for colossal abuse of State power. It may help to have a village to raise a child, but the village does not have the right to demand the child is raised as it wants if the parents disagree. The role of the village is to help the parents raise the child, and to prevent the parents massively abusing their parental authority in such ways as physical abuse.
Of course, there is also a culture clash here, between the more individualistic view of rights of the Anglo-American tradition and the more communitarian trend of continental Europe. The German argument, as I understand it, is essentially that homeschooling can lead to the develoment of "parallel societies" with values fundamentally opposed to the nation they are living in. As I said, this is a valid concern. In an age of terrorism, such groups could and can be a very real threat to the safety and security of those around them. Homeschooling means that fundamentalist Muslims will find it easier to raise their children to be jihadists and suicide bombers. Political extremists on the right will be able to raise little neo-Nazis, and on the left the next Baader-Meinhof group...
This is true. But the problem with the German solution is it assumes that the State, or at least the democratic collective, will always be the reserve of tolerance, moderation and wisdom. And Germans, of all people should know how easily the democratic state can be subverted and corrupted. Guaranteeing the right of people to be, as individuals, families and groups, distinctly different from the prevailing culture increses the danger of extremism. Yes. But that right, as a fundamental legal principle, increases the difficulty of the State itself turning extreme, and enforcing its extremism if it does. To go back to my examples above, universal compulsory government education may lower the risk of Jihadists, Neo-Nazis and Baader-Meinhofs. But in the long term, it increases the risk of government-compelled Fundamentalist Madrassas, Hitler-Jugend and Pioneers
This particular case is complicated by the politics of asylum and immigration - if the US government is compelled to grant asylum to the Romieke's, they may well have many more asylum apllicants from countries that restrict homeschooling. And of course, no country that cares anything about what the rest of the world thinks of it (i.e., just about everywhere other than North Korea...) likes to have asylum granted to one of its citizens by a major world power. Especially Western European countries, which tend to view themselves as obviously the most civilised and liberal places in the world*...Apparently an official of the German government has already accused the US of "treating us like a banana republic" for even cosidering the case.
But what concerns me most af all as a parent in America is the domestic implications. In a Common Law legal system, judicial precedent is all important. If the Romeikes lose this case, the precedent will be established that it does not impinge on any fundamental right if the government prohibits homeschooling entirely. This will make it far easier for any future US government to do so without legal challenge. It will also probably ease the way for a great many other restrictions on the right s of parents to take decisions for their own children. The Romeikes case involves every parent in America.
The first HSLDA report I refferred to. Michael Farris brings out very clearly the legal and philosophical issues at stake.
First Things gets on the case - interesting analysis of the governments position.
Time magazine article from the beginning of the case - includes some history of the law and concept in Germany.
*Who says Western European countries are the most civilised in the world? Well, Western Europeans do, and they are the most civilised, liberal and best educated people in the world, so they must be right, of course... Because they are the best educated and least prejudiced people in the world and so...
UPDATE April 23 - A critique of the HSLDA position, and a fairly detailed legal rebuttal of that critique, from some better bloggers than me... http://www.manofthewest.net/blog/2013/04/some-follow-up-on-the-romeike-home-school-asylum-case.html