Montana Viewpoint

February 21, 2005

One of the most controversial bills in this session of the legislature—at least so far—was a bill to require people who home-school their children to meet certain standards. It was sponsored by Senator Don Ryan from Great Falls, and was met with unswerving opposition from home school practitioners. Immediately after the hearing, and while everyone was still in the hearing room, I took the unusual step of moving to table the bill. The motion carried, the bill died, and a cheer went up from the crowd.

Since then, many people have written to thank me for what I did. I feel somewhat bogus in accepting those thank-yous because my purpose in killing the bill was not entirely concerned with protecting what many home schoolers feel is an inalienable right. I moved to table the bill because I felt its very existence was driving an inextricable wedge between two groups of people with different, but not opposing, viewpoints, and would forever preclude a resolution to the issue.

Senator Ryan is passionate about protecting what he so eloquently calls “the shadow children.” These are children whose parents don’t send them to public school, but don’t give them an education at home either.  His concern is genuine, but I felt his solution was severe.

Opinions on both sides of the home school issue are polarized and in many cases misinformed. Many professional educators have difficulty believing that anyone but trained educators can give a child an adequate education, and use the extreme cases to illustrate their point.

During the hearing some home schools parents denied that these “shadow children” exist; some admitted that they do, but pointed out that there are abused kids in the public school system, too; and some want to find ways to help them without infringing on their rights to educate their own children.

The vast majority of home schooled children receive an adequate to excellent education from conscientious parents. The fact that there are, however, parents who jeopardize their children’s future by neglecting their education does not reflect in the least on the abilities and successes of competent home school parents. The issue needs to be recognized and addressed in a rational way, without demonizing or denigrating anyone. The only thing that is important is the child, and to put children at risk by allowing them to receive a sub-standard education is wrong. I don’t think that any reasonable person can argue that.

The solution does not lie in the State of Montana submitting home school children and parents to unrealistic standards, and it does not lie in home school parents denying the state a role in seeing that all Montana children are given an opportunity to succeed; an opportunity that is denied without an adequate education.

I have received thoughtful letters from parents who do want to do something; who do test their children, and acknowledge that they must be a part of the solution. The issue will not disappear, and a bill will be introduced in every legislature to address it. The solution is that people of good conscience must work together for the benefit of the shadow children.

Surely there are tests and testing conditions that home school parents and the Office of Public Instruction can agree on, and both parties must work towards that goal with mutual understanding and respect in order to solve it.

My motion to table the bill immediately was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made as a legislator. I put my friendship with Senator Ryan at risk, and presented him with what could be taken as an embarrassing defeat. Senator Ryan accepted the result with exemplary poise and understanding, for which I can never thank him enough. I offer it as a good faith effort to the home school community so that I and others—including Senator Ryan—can work with the parties in conflict to come to a mutual decision on how to address the shadow children issue.

How can any of us take pride in being “right” if a child suffers because of our stubbornness? What does anyone lose by giving up a small part of their autonomy to help a child who would be lost without our action?  Nothing!

If we are unwilling to compromise to help one child, we lose. It is only when we sacrifice our self interests to help another that we win, and neither party has the right to hold their head high when their intransigence imperils the future of a child.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620