Today’s column: Religion, education and the Constitution
Religion, education and the Constitution
Stefanie Patag, a U.S. based Filipina mother who has been home-schooling her children for the past several years, sent me links to web pages about recent legal developments and community discussions on the right of parents to homeschool their children.
The main issue is whether parents have an inalienable right to choose to homeschool their children rather than to enroll them in the public school system. References are made to the California appellate court’s decision in In re RACHEL L. et al (No. B192878, Second District, Division Three, February 28, 2008) where the parents asserted that it was because of their “sincerely held religious beliefs” that they home school their children and those religious beliefs “are based on Biblical teachings and principles.”
In our own Constitution, the relevant provision is found in paragraph 2 of section 2 of Article 14 which states that “Without limiting the natural right of parents to rear their children, elementary education is compulsory for all children of school age.” As screwed as it may sound, our legal system is still at that medieval stage where we still consider American jurisprudence as precedents.
The universal right to education is an offshoot of modern democracy. Where education used to be a privilege of the wealthy, the modern concept of equality gave birth to the principle that every child should have access to basic education at the very least. That’s why the state is obliged to provide free basic education, a.k.a. the public school system.
The foremost question in my mind is the difference between a right and an obligation. For those of us who are old enough to remember the days during the Marcos era when not exercising the right to vote entailed sanctions, the difference is easier to spell out. A right is a privilege and a person who holds a right may choose to exercise it or not to exercise it. I have the right to vote and that right carries with it the right to abstain and to boycott any or all electoral exercises.
The thing about the right to education is that it becomes two-sided. It is a right insofar as children are concerned but it is an obligation on the part of the parents. As many homeschooling parents pointed out after the promulgation of the Rachel L. decision, there is that nagging question as to whether the child’s right to education does not encroach on parental authority which includes the right to determine how to educate their children.
Modern home schooling is not necessarily a one-to-one arrangement. This isn’t like kids of titled European lords being taught by governesses and not having the chance to interact with other children then own age. In most cases, home schooling today involves the formation of small groups of children who meet with some regularity.
The peculiar thing is the relation with religion. For many homeschooled children in the U.S., Europe and even in the Philippines, the parentsâ€˜ decision to homeschool is largely influenced not by any perceived lack in the education system but by the intention to provide an education that is patterned after the parentsâ€˜ religious beliefs and values. Although children’s natural need to socialize with others their own age is addressed, it becomes more apparent than real since they only get to interact with children similarly raised.
Whether that’s good or bad, in the context of limitations, is as subjective as subjective can get. I know someone who home schooled her kid for years, enrolled the child in a regular school for a couple of years, then reverted to home schooling because the parent did not want the child to be further contaminated — yes, contaminated was the word used — by the other kids in school.
To be fair, if we’re talking about formal educational standards in the strict sense, most of these homeschooled kids are not maleducated. In fact, if we look at the curricula that home schooling parents prepare for their children, a lot of them are getting better education that most kids who attend public and private schools.
The inevitable question is whether it is in the best interest of the child to be insulated from beliefs, ideas and values outside of what his parents allow. To say it more accurately, should the state stand by and allow children to be raised in accordance with their parents biases and prejudices? Or does the state, in accordance with its own right to preserve itself, have the right to intervene, even to the point of infringing on parental authority, in order to provide the child with a more holistic view of the world and humanity?
One curious aspect of the debate — and this really nags at me — is whether this is really about parental authority or the freedom of religion. I respect freedom of religion but I draw the line when the freedom encroaches on the right of children to find out for themselves if there are other faiths that they might feel more attuned to or if religious faith is necessary at all. Children aren’t chattels, they are not our personal property and they are not extensions of ourselves. I do not agree that the concept of parental authority includes the right of parents to make sure that their children embrace only the faith they have chosen, whether directly or indrectly by consciously not exposing them to ideas contrary to that faith.
It’s something like a microcosm of society at large. Parents question laws and principles that they deem too dictatorial like disallowing home schooling based on religious beliefs. Yet, they do not often see how dictatorial they can be in their relationship with their own children when they insist on their absolute right to raise them according to their faith of choice.
You know, if we accept that the state has the right to impose sanctions on parents that inflict abusive physical punishment on their children — and most of us do accept that — then, we accept a limitation on our parental authority. Why does such a limitation seem more reasonable, and easier to accept, that one that says we cannot impose our religious beliefs on our children?