JANE EISNER It's a sin to dismiss the home-school law
The Hankin children of Bristol Township in Bucks County, Pa., went horseback riding Wednesday, and even though it was the middle of summer vacation, their mother considered it part of the school day. Everything can be part of the school day in the Hankin household because parents Thomas and Babette are in charge.
And they want it to stay that way.
They alone decide what to teach their seven children, who range in age from 2 to 14 years old, and when and how. They believe God put Thomas in charge of educating his family, with Babette as his helper, and no state law or school official should interfere.
So devoutly do they believe this that they recently sued the local school district, saying the government has no right to monitor their children's "holy and sacred education" and that complying with Pennsylvania's stringent home-school law is a sin.
The question is: Should the rest of us care?
I'm not being facetious. The legal issue is whether Pennsylvania's 2-year-old Religious Freedom Protection Act exempts the Hankins from complying with state regulations for the home-schooled because compliance places a "substantial burden" on their religious beliefs. And that will be for the court to decide.
But what the Hankins really want is to be left alone.
They've never complied with the state rules and so can point to no horror story of overzealous bureaucracy. It's the "idea" they object to, the paperwork and proof they must submit, the possibility that a secular school official will pass judgment on their values.
Part of me says: Fine. Babette Hankin seems like a reasonable person -- college-educated, articulate -- and if she wants to stay in a three-bedroom house all day with seven kids, who am I to object?
Hiding behind the Religious Freedom Protection Act, however, seems only a convenient mechanism. The government isn't persecuting the Hankins because they are Christian. It's an equal-opportunity persecutor: Live in Pennsylvania, follow the rules.
And in a time-honored American tradition, this family doesn't want to follow the rules. As long as they hurt no one, why should the rest of us care?
Here's why: If I believe that the state has no responsibility whatsoever to ensure that the Hankin kids are educated, then I have no reason to care about the kid in North Philadelphia whose prospects are severely weakened because he's stuck in an awful school that doesn't care about his education, either.
If I leave the Hankins alone, I may as well tell lawmakers to forget about the kids in Pennsylvania's poor and neglected rural areas. And those not fortunate enough to have parents as devoted or learned as the Hankins, or as patient. Of course, if I left them alone, I wouldn't "know whether they were devoted, learned or patient because there'd be no public oversight of their activities. No matter; I wouldn't care.
Some states don't seem to care. New Jersey demands little of its home-schooling families, no paperwork, no proof of accomplishment, no standards. Only Pennsylvania and 10 other states require parents to sign affidavits, send in achievement scores, portfolio their children's work, and have it professionally evaluated.
Either lawmakers here care a lot, or way too much. Take your pick.
"Many home-schoolers believe that God has given children to them as a sacred trust," says Darren Jones, staff attorney for the Home School Legal Defense Association, which is involved in the Hankins case. "They believe they'll be standing before God on Judgment Day, and that's a much higher standard than standing before the school superintendent."
Indeed. The problem with that logic is that it can be used to excuse ourselves from all sorts of communal responsibilities, from paying taxes to helping the disabled to ensuring that the next generation is taught well enough to become productive citizens.
Yes, Pennsylvania's rules may be unnecessarily stringent, although that hasn't stopped 25,000 other children from being home-schooled in the state. But imagine a state that altered its constitution, absolving itself of all responsibility for educating its young, leaving it in the hands of parents and caring nothing about the outcome.
I won't want to answer for that on Judgment Day.
X Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.