By guest writers Ezra Husney and Rachel Coleman
On June 24, the Texas supreme court issued its decision in a decade-old dispute between a school district and a homeschooling family. Instead of putting the case to rest with a clear and unambiguous ruling, the court sent the case back down to a lower court while limiting its own discussion to technical questions of jurisdiction.
The court missed an opportunity to clarify the responsibilities of school districts with regard to homeschooling in the state of Texas, which is unfortunate as the current rules offer little guidance.
The case began in 2006 when Tori McIntyre, an El Paso homeschooling family’s eldest daughter, ran away in order to attend public school. After she was placed in the ninth grade, despite being 17 years old at the time, her grandparents notified the city’s school district of their serious concerns regarding the education of their other homeschooled grandchildren.
The district requested that the McIntyre parents sign a homeschool verification form and, upon their refusal, filed truancy charges.
The charges were soon dropped but, in the aftermath, the McIntyres filed a suit against their family members and the school district claiming they had violated their rights under state and federal law.
Texas is one of 11 states where parents are not required to provide any notification of homeschooling, leaving hundreds of thousands of school-age children completely unregistered.
Also, parents in Texas need not submit any evidence that they are educating their children. While the law requires that parents provide instruction in good citizenship, math, reading, spelling and grammar, there is no assessment mechanism to ensure that such instruction is provided.
Texas law offers some of the fewest protections for homeschooled children in the country, which makes the introduction of clear rules regarding the responsibilities of school districts all the more pressing.
The Texas supreme court’s ruling centered on two rather technical legal issues.
The first was whether the courts even had jurisdiction over the McIntyre case. In order to bring a complaint regarding Texas education laws to a state court, one must first exhaust administrative avenues for resolution; for example, by taking the matter before the state’s education commissioner.
The school district maintained that, because the McIntyres had not done so, the case should be dismissed. On this question, the supreme court ruled that courts did indeed have jurisdiction over the matter because the complaints involved broader constitutional issues. However, the court declined to rule on these constitutional issues, opting to send the case back down to a lower court.
The second legal question was whether Mark Mendoza, the district official who filed truancy charges against the McIntyres in 2007, was shielded from personal liability. Because he acted in his capacity as a governmental official, the court ruled that he was indeed protected.
The core issue that remains unresolved after this ruling is whether Texas school districts are permitted to conduct minimal oversight of homeschooling. In this case, district officials merely asked that the McIntyres submit a verification-of-homeschooling form.
The state’s supreme court, in its 1994 Leeper decision, upheld the permissibility of homeschooling as long as the basic educational needs of students were being met. But school district officials are given virtually no guidance on what they are permitted to do in order to ensure that these basic educational needs are, in fact, being satisfied.
We hope that, in reviewing this case, the lower courts will rule in favor of district oversight so as to vindicate all of Texas children’s right to education.
Rachel Coleman is executive director at Coalition For Responsible Home Education and Yale University senior Ezra Husney is a fellow at the institution.