Sect needed only a letter to avoid sending children to public schools

Houston Chronicle/April 23, 2008

Austin - It didn't take much for the children from a West Texas polygamist sect to disappear from the public school radar.

About two years ago, the Schleicher County sheriff and the local school superintendent met with a leader from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints about the kind of education youngsters might be getting at the church's Yearning for Zion ranch.

The officials got a letter specifying that the children would be privately schooled and that the curriculum included the basics, according to the state.

That's all it took. In fact, by meeting with officials without a formal truancy complaint being filed and by specifying that the private school curriculum would cover basics such as reading, the church leader appears to have gone beyond what's strictly required in Texas education law.

"The courts have told the state essentially to keep your hands off of private schools and home schools and don't butt in, so that's what we do," said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe.

Neither Sheriff David Doran nor Schleicher County school Superintendent Billy Collins returned a phone call seeking comment about the meeting. But it was confirmed by Ratcliffe and Tela Mange of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Mange, who spoke on Doran's behalf, added that the sect left a packet of curriculum materials with the superintendent.

Texas has long exempted children in private school from compulsory public school attendance, which covers children starting at age 6 until they turn 18. Under a 1994 Texas Supreme Court ruling, home schools are considered private schools, with the same freedom from state oversight.

"People are usually stunned when I tell them we don't have any oversight at all over private schools or home schools. They just assume that there are certain requirements they have to teach, or materials they have to use, and there's not," Ratcliffe said.

Soon after the removal of more than 400 children from the ranch near Eldorado, home-school proponents voiced concern that the situation might be used to taint their education efforts.

"A local law enforcement officer was quoted as saying that authorities were not able to 'get at' these families earlier because they were home-schooling," Tim Lambert, president of the Texas Home School Coalition, said in a news release.

"When these kind of tragedies happen, people say, 'If we regulated home schooling, this wouldn't happen,'" he said. "My argument is always, this is an abuse case, not an education issue."

It's not clear exactly how many of the 437 children taken from the compound are in the 6-to-17 age range. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has said only that at least 100 of them are 5 or older.

The issue may be particularly sensitive to home-school advocates since the focus on the compound comes as a child-abuse case in California has prompted an appeals court ruling that parents who home-school their children in that state must have teaching credentials. An appeals court has agreed to a rehearing.

David Berliner, a professor at the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education at Arizona State University whose research interests include school vouchers and classroom teaching, said it's wrong for the state to be hands-off.

"My take on it is that children are not the personal property of parents," Berliner said by e-mail. "As minors, the state has an abiding interest in checking on their welfare and their education. When the state doesn't do that, it is abandoning its responsibility to take care of those we define as not able to make decisions on their own.

"Walking away from such responsibility is cowardly. Texans should be ashamed of their lack of oversight."

State Board of Education member David Bradley of Beaumont, whose children were home-schooled, said education is a parental responsibility. "They didn't go in there and raid the place because the kids weren't getting an education," he said.

"The solution for prevention wasn't to regulate all the private schools."

State Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, a House Public Education Committee member who has served in the House since 1993, said the issue is a legal matter.

"In all the years I've been in the Legislature, nobody has come to me with anything near a compelling case, or even a suggested case, that we should make a priority of greater inspection or regulation of home schools or private schools," he said.

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