Texas court considers homeschool autonomy

Homeschooling | While the state’s high court reviews the legality and latitude of officials to request proof of education, experts insist homeschool law is unlikely to change
by Katie Gaultney
Posted 11/04/15, 04:23 pm

DALLAS—The Texas Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in a case that at first glance would appear to have far-reaching effects on the state’s more than 120,000 homeschool families—about one-sixth of the nation’s total homeschool population.

At issue is how much latitude local and state officials have in requesting proof—in the form of lesson plans or curricula—that homeschool students are being educated in a way that satisfies vague standards laid out by the Texas Education Agency.

While media reports cast the suit as a watershed moment pitting religious fanatics against state education overlords, legal experts say any outcome in the case will have limited impact.

“The case has never been about the legality of homeschooling,” Jim Mason, vice president and director of litigation for the Home School Legal Defense Association, said. “The issue is whether public school officials can be held liable for improperly pursuing an investigation into the practices of a homeschooling family, or if those officials would be protected by qualified immunity”—that is, proceeding in good faith that the official was acting within the parameters of his or her job.

The suit centers around Michael and Laura McIntyre of El Paso, Texas, who have educated their nine children at home since 2004. But when their 17-year-old daughter Tori ran away from home to stay with extended family, she said she wanted to return to public school.

A prior legal dispute over a motorcycle dealership co-owned by Michael and his twin brother, Tracy, strained family ties. So when Tori was unable to share any specifics about the curriculum or lesson plans her family followed, legal documents say Tracy and his parents, Gene and Shirene McIntyre, contacted the El Paso Independent School District’s attendance officer.

“This family, to my understanding, is a standard-issue homeschool family that was in a contentious lawsuit with their family over a multimillion dollar business,” Mason said. “It was like a divorce. It was messy.”

Under current Texas law, in cases where educational neglect is suspected, state officials may legally ask homeschool educators to sign a form verifying they are teaching the basics—reading, spelling, grammar, math, and good citizenship—or risk facing truancy charges.

The McIntyres feared the form, which asked them to pledge to use a “[Texas Education Agency]-compliant curriculum,” would violate their religious liberty and constitutional rights, according to court documents. They refused to sign it and were charged with truancy. The family in turn filed suit against the district. An appeals court ruled against the McIntyres, and now the case is at the conservative-controlled Texas Supreme Court.

“What the media is getting wrong is they’re portraying this as an attempt by the state to say, ‘They have to prove that they’re homeschooling,’ when really it is a suit by the family saying that this truancy officer harassed them in allowing himself to be used by the extended family,” Tim Lambert, president of the Texas Home School Coalition, said.

Texas is considered a homeschool-friendly state, with no registration, standardized testing, or reporting requirements for home educators. The 1994 decision Leeper v. Arlington ISD upheld the rights of families wishing to homeschool in Texas by classifying them as private schools and therefore exempt from compulsory attendance requirements.

“The state of Texas currently has the authority to pursue a more restrictive policy regarding homeschooling but has chosen not to do so,” Lambert said. “We expect that policy to continue.”

Mason agreed, saying that in accordance with the Leeper judgment, when family educators sign a letter of assurance verifying they are teaching their children in a “bona fide” manner, “that ends it 99.9 percent of the time.” He added that he doesn’t see any likelihood the Texas Supreme Court will dismantle existing Leeper law.

Tracy McIntyre told district officials he became concerned when he overhead one of his brother’s children tell a cousin they “did not need to do schoolwork” because they “were going to be raptured,” according to a legal filing.

News stories have made the “rapture” comment out to be more significant than it was, according to Mason. 

“Most of the juicy facts came out later because the [Michael McIntyre] family believed the school district and its officials were improperly colluding with the [extended] family members in the lawsuit,” he said.