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The Homeschool Movement’s German Lesson

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A German family becomes a test case for freedom of education.

On January 26, a Tennessee judge granted political asylum to Uwe and Hannelore Romeike and their five children, three years after German police forcibly transferred the three eldest children—then aged 9, 8, and 6—from their home in Bissingen to state school. The U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) appealed the Tennessee ruling a month later, placing the case in limbo. If the appeal is rejected, more foreign homeschoolers may seek asylum in the United States, where roughly 2 million children homeschool.

After the Romeikes pulled their children from state schools in 2006 and began home instruction, German authorities fined them about $100,000, physically took the children back to public school, threatened jail time, and began proceedings to take away the family's home.

When Germany's highest appellate court ruled in November 2007 that social services could remove children from home in cases of “severe non-compliance” with social norms, Uwe Romeike said, he knew "we had to leave the country," as Germany strictly enforces public school attendance. In 2008, the Romeikes moved to Morristown, Tennessee, and applied for political asylum. The United States granted roughly 1 in 5 of its more than 47,000 political asylum requests in 2008. This was the first reported such case predominantly linked with foreign restrictions against homeschooling.

This was the first reported U.S. asylum case predominantly linked with foreign restrictions against homeschooling.

The Romeikes, who are Christians, said they decided to homeschool after bullies attacked their eldest son in school and their daughter was frightened after another student brought a knife to class.

“There was a lot of violence and noise in [my eldest daughter’s] class, so she couldn’t concentrate and was afraid of going to school because the other children would throw sticks and stones at her on the way to school,” Uwe Romeike said in a quiet voice from his home in Tennessee with the muted chatter of children behind him. “She developed headaches and stomachaches and the doctors couldn’t fix it.”

At that time, both children were enrolled in the American equivalent of early elementary school. The family had not yet heard of homeschooling, but discovered it after other options among local private schools disappointed them. Soon after they began home education, their daughter’s unexplained illnesses vanished, Romeike said.

Germany is currently the only Western country that completely bans homeschooling, though the European Court of Human Rights has supported Germany's stance, ruling in 2006 that the ban complies with European law and the European Convention of Human Rights. German courts have likewise upheld the restrictions, noting and justifying the country's fear of "parallel societies" functioning within. An article in the news source Global Post articulates some of the cultural motivations behind these restrictions:

Germany's strict laws requiring all children to attend state-registered schools help ensure each child learns to tolerate and understand others, said Kirsten Verclas of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington, D.C. “During Nazism, there was racism to the extreme,” Verclas said. “The education system and other state systems prevent fringe opinions out there that might negatively affect our state.” In the U.S., Verclas said, people believe that individual rights should trump the state’s rights. In Germany, she said, it’s the other way around.

Germany is currently the only Western country that completely bans homeschooling, though the European Court of Human Rights has supported Germany's stance.

Further justifications have been reported by the Associated Press: "Lutz Gorgens, German consul general for the Southeast U.S. … said German parents have a wide range of educational options for their children. Gorgens said the mandatory school attendance policy ensures a high standard of learning for all children. 'Parents may choose between public, private and religious schools, including those with alternative curricula like Waldorf or Montessori schools.'" And Karl-Matthias Klause, a German embassy spokesman, said homeschooling wasn't "illegal" in Germany—as long as parents homeschooled in addition to complying with the usual state school attendance.

Like Germany, the United States has not always supported homeschooling. After law changed to fit public opinion and new research displaying homeschooling’s benefits, homeschoolers now typically enjoy broad freedom to choose curriculum, the length of the school day and year, and other measures also popular within the growing charter school movement. Each state differs in its homeschooling oversight, from demanding nearly none to requiring measures like notification, annual tests, and curriculum review.

Homeschooled students, on average, score 34 to 39 percentage points above non-homeschooled students on standardized test scores, though they learn from parents who rarely possess a teaching degree. And according to Michael Van Beek of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, “Homeschoolers whose parents do not have college degrees still tested in the 83rd percentile.”

A win for the Romeikes could mean the United States and friendly EU countries receive more asylum requests from families seeking the freedom to educate their children at home. A loss could indicate further efforts to roll up the welcome mat for freedom of education in America.

Joy Pullmann is assistant editor of THE AMERICAN.

FURTHER READING: Arnold Kling reveals "What's Stalling the Next Economic Revolution" and Frederick Hess asks "What Will the Midterms Mean for Education Reform Initiatives?" Andrew Kelly explores “The Global University and the Future of Homan Capital” and Jay Mathews explains why education entrepreneurs say, “We Don’t Want Your Money.” 

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