SCHOOL ATTENDANCE VS. HOME EDUCATION: Can Germany Loosen Up about Home Education?

Record: Franz Reimer, “School Attendance as a Civic Duty vs. Home Education as a Human Right” in International Journal of Elementary Education 3, no. 1 (October 2010): 5-15.

Summary: This is the first article in a special issue of the International Journal devoted entirely to homeschooling.  They are all available for free here.

Reimer kicks off the issue with a look at the homeschooling situation in Germany.  As we’ve noted in previous posts (here and here), in Germany homeschooling is essentially illegal.  The few German families that do it (and Reimer is clear that there is no way to know how many there may be–a few hundred?  Thousands?) are off the grid, fearing prosecution from government authorities.

Reimer explains how German federal law specifies that “the care and upbringing of children is the natural right of parents and a duty primarily incumbent upon them.”  Nevertheless, “the State shall watch over them in the performance of this duty.”  State law, furthermore, makes it clear that “the entire school system shall be under the supervision of the state.”  Germany is split into 16 states, and each of them has its own set of education laws.

Thus far German courts have sided with the states in cases involving a conflict between parents claiming that homeschooling falls within their natural right as parents and states rejecting such rights.  Courts justify this by claiming that the public has an interest in “counteracting the rise of religious or ideological ‘parallel societies’” and by the fact that parents can work with schools and with their children after school.  Parental rights, the saying goes, is a right “within compulsory schooling, not against compulsory schooling.” (p. 10)

International courts have also found the German situation acceptable according to the statutes of the European Union, so German homeschoolers cannot appeal there.

After summarizing all of this, Reimer concludes with four recommendations:

1. He’d like German states to do some empirical research to see if the German families who are homeschooling in secret are actually failing to educate their children according to how the state defines it.  If so, then fine, keep it illegal.  But if they’re actually doing a good job, then the state should relax and let it happen.

2. The fear of “parallel societies” is bogus.  Federal German law articulates great respect for minority views (a legacy of Germany’s shame over its Nazi past).  The law’s acceptance of diversity trumps majoritarian fears of difference.

3. German courts should take homeschooling cases on a case-by-case basis rather than hewing to blanket prohibitions of homeschooling.  That no court has ever found any homeschooling to be legitimate despite the fact that there is no law explicitly forbidding it suggests that the courts are being lazy.

4. Claims that the state has done enough to satisfy the guarantee of parental freedoms by allowing the existence of private schools and by allowing parents to have their kids after school are weak.  A principle that is supposed to protect liberty has been turned into a principle that limits it.  This needs to be re-thought.

Reimer concludes that German courts’ approach to homeschooling suggests a fundamental contradiction with the very liberalism and tolerance they claim to espouse.  He’d like to see Germany move in the direction of many other European nations and begin to permit a heavily-regulated form of homeschooling as an option for fulfiling state compulsory education statutes.

Milton Gaither, Messiah College, author of Homeschool: An American History.

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