Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Education, Loyalty, and Home

There have been a couple of noteworthy news stories about education here in Northern California the last few days. In one case, a remedial math teacher at Cal State East Bay (the former CSU-Hayward) was fired because, as a devout Quaker, she objected to two items in the loyalty oath that all state employees must sign. Specifically, she objected to the wording "I swear" and to the implication that she would take up arms or other violent means in defending the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. (A compromise was later reached, allowing her to return to CSU-EB.) The other case involved homeschooling. A state appellate court ruled that parents who home-school their children must have proper teaching credentials for the grade level(s) of their kids. The vast majority of homeschooling parents are not accredited, so if the ruling stands, those kids will legally be considered truant.

Marianne Kearney-Brown is a grad student at CSU-EB, and has a part-time job teaching remedial math to undergrads. Her students are the ones who muddled through high school without mastering the basic math skills needed by anyone who wants to be competitive in the job market. They probably don't like math, find it boring and tedious, and have never really understood it at any level beyond hoping to pass the next pop quiz. She was getting the kids motivated and getting through to them; by all accounts, her teaching was top-grade. However, all employees of the state of California, including part-time grad student instructors, must "swear (or affirm) [to] preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Ms. Kearney-Brown modified the oath slightly, more or less along these lines: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will nonviolently preserve, protect and defend..." The University held that it was unacceptable for the employee to modify the oath in any way, even for her religious beliefs. (Quakers believe that taking an oath is blasphemous, and violence is not acceptable, even in defense of your country.) They cited a court precedent from 1968, Smith v. County Engineer, and told her, "Based on the advice of counsel, we cannot permit attachments or addenda that are incompatible and inconsistent with the oath."

There's just one thing: the "attachments or addenda" in question were in no way "incompatible and inconsistent" with the purpose of the oath. In the end, the University offered a compromise solution: Ms. Kearney-Brown would sign the oath with a statement from the University that her oath does not in any way bind her to take up arms, even in the event of invasion or insurrection. Further, that clarification will be made available to other employees who might have similar reservations. Meanwhile, she is reinstated with back pay. The University clearly saw that it was on shaky legal ground, and faced a public relations nightmare, so it quickly found a face-saving way to back quietly away. All in all, a "win-win" ending.

The other ruling of note was a California appeals court on 2008-03-07, holding that California law requires that children either be enrolled in an accredited school or be tutored by teachers who are accredited for the student's grade level, and that the law makes no exception for homeschooling. The great majority of parents who home-school their children, do not have state-approved credentials, and the court specifically held that it was insufficient to have an accredited school sign off on the parents' lesson plans and make quarterly visits to the home. There are an estimated 166,000 children affected by this ruling, if it holds on appeal. The governor has already announced that if the ruling is not overturned by the courts, he will work with the legislature to change the law.

The issue of homeschooling is complicated. There are many students who "fall through the cracks" in public schools, or even in private schools. Many of them are better served by having the individual attention and round-the-clock supervision of their parents as teachers. However, there are also homeschoolers who pull their kids from regular schools in order to teach that Noah and the Ark is an historical truth, or that dinosaurs and humans roamed the earth contemporaneously, or that the government of the United States comes from Almighty God. Society as a whole is poorly served by allowing parents to propagate such pernicious disinformation. Kids need to know that science and scientific evidence tell us that the earth is billions of years old and that dinosaurs died out millions of years before the earliest humans, and they need to learn and understand that the United States is and always has been a secular nation. We are not and never have been a Christian nation, despite the fact that a substantial majority of our people are Christians. More broadly, society needs some assurance that the material that homeschooling parents are teaching their kids is accurate and complete, meeting the educational standards that are the bedrock of our future prosperity. It will be a dark day indeed if the legislature turns around and says, "Okay, homeschoolers, you can do whatever you want — we don't care."

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