This post reviews Thomas Spiegler, “Why State Sanctions Fail to Deter Home Education: An Analysis of Home Education in Germany and its Implications for Home Education Policies” in Theory and Research in Education 7, no. 3 (November 2009): 297-309
This is the last post in a series I’ve devoted to the recent special issue of Theory and Research in Education, which was entirely about homeschooling [I didn't review my own article]. Here Thomas Spiegler, a sociology professor at Friedensau Adventist University in Germany, draws some policy implications from his award-winning 2007 doctoral dissertation, which was the first ever study of homeschooling in Germany.
Spiegler begins with an orientation to homeschooling in Germany. Basically, it’s illegal. Though compulsory schooling has been around in Germany since the 17th century (you could make a good case that it was invented there), there were always exceptions built into the law for private options. But in 1938 (yes, that would be under Hitler) the law was tightened and “criminal consequences in case of contraventions” were initiated (p. 299). Despite this situation, homeschooling has grown in popularity in recent decades, as both conservative Christians and leftist child liberation types have turned to it in protest against a public school system they find inflexible and authoritarian. Currently Spiegler estimates that there are anywhere from 600 to 1000 children being homeschooled in Germany. The number would be larger, but there has lately been a growing trend among German homeschoolers to emigrate to more hospitable countries rather than suffer the consequences of breaking the law, consequences ranging from steep fines to prison time to loss of custody of their children.
Why, given such stringent sanctions, has homeschooling grown in Germany? Partly because those responsible for meting out judgment often soften the blow. Spiegler reports several examples of government officials surreptitiously looking the other way, concluding that there is not much more support for high fines or imprisonment than there is for homeschooling itself. Additionally, many German homeschoolers view their actions not as criminal activity but as civil disobedience, appealing to conscience and to the German Constitution and international law, acting without violence, and sometimes getting sympathetic press coverage. Finally, German homeschoolers have a personal narrative that gives them a sense of personal self-worth. Many see themselves as “freedom fighters or pioneers of an enlightenment.” (p. 304) In their view, it is not homeschoolers who are deviant but the backward German law that is so at odds with the rest of the civilized world on this question.
Given that sanctions have not stopped the movement, Spiegler argues in this article’s last section that Germany should legalize, but regulate, homeschooling. He adopts Rob Reich’s contention that three parties have legitimate interests in the child’s education: the parents, the child, and the broader society. Just as a totally unregulated environment privileges the interests of the parents and prejudices against the interests of the child and society, so Germany’s total prohibition tilts the balance too far away from the parent and child. Moreover, since homeschooling families are forced to go off the grid, prohibition ironically means that the State cannot determine whether the child’s needs are being met at all. Better would be a balanced policy that would allow parents to homeschool but would require them to register with the government, meet academic standards, and submit to testing to ensure progress.
At the end of the paper Spiegler entertains two possible objections. Some Germans may fear that if homeschooling is legalized there will be an explosion of homeschoolers. Spiegler counters that in nearly all European countries where it is legal “the percentage of home educated children is far below 1%.” (p. 307). The second objection is that many parents would likely reject even reasonable state regulations. Here he counters that most homeschoolers would cooperate, and those who don’t would face sanctions that this time, given a more reasonable law, would be enforced with more consistency.
I found this article fascinating to read, largely because its context is so different from what we tend to talk about in the United States. Here any suggestion of government regulation is met with angry anathemas by a vocal, organized, and powerful homeschooling population (as many of the comments posted under my review of Robin West‘s recent article illustrate). Rob Reich in particular has for many years been the whipping boy of many within the homeschooling world. Yet in the German context Reich’s prescriptions seem generous and liberating!
Spiegler writes with a strong voice and is clearly up on the American literature. I wish his dissertation were available in English, for if this article is a good indicator, it’s probably a great piece of work.