Issue in Focus
Feb 12 2016
One of America’s most distinctive and exceptional qualities is the spirit of liberty embodied in our people and in our institutions. And there is perhaps no better expression of the American ethos of liberty than the belief that parents have the inalienable right – and indeed the responsibility – to direct the education of their children. Nowhere else in the world will you hear from parents what is widely held as a self-evident truth in households across America: that no one is in a better position to make decisions about a child’s education than his or her parents or guardians.
The premise of the homeschool movement in America is that parents do not forfeit this essential right to educate their own children just because they pay taxes to finance a public school system. It is also the reason liberty-minded policymakers have created various financial tools to ease the burden on parents using their own money to pay for their child’s educational expenses. For instance, Coverdell education savings accounts give parents the option to deposit up to $2000 annually of their pretax income into a special account that grows tax free and can be used to pay for qualified education expenses.
Coverdell accounts were created by the federal government, but they do not constitute a federal education “program” – they are a creature of the tax code. Participation is not mandatory, and it comes with no “strings attached.” It’s just one of many financial tools available to parents designed to preserve and protect their fundamental right to direct the education of their children. But there’s a problem: under the current system, Coverdell accounts aren’t available to all parents. Because of differences in state laws, homeschool parents have the option to sign up for a Coverdell account in only 14 states.
There are essentially two ways to fix this disparity between the states’ homeschooling families: either the states can act, which would require action by each of the 36 states where home educators are currently ineligible for Coverdell accounts, or Congress can amend the law’s eligibility requirements so that homeschool parents can access the savings provided by Coverdell accounts.
As we wait for the states to act, Congress should do what is within its power to ensure that federal law treats home educators fairly and equally, no matter what state they happen to live in.
That’s exactly the purpose of Section 201 of the “Enhancing Educational Opportunities for all Students Act,” which stipulates that, for the purposes of determining Coverdell account eligibility, the term “private school” includes “any home school that meets the requirements of State law applicable to such home schools.”
This is not, as some critics allege, a federal redefinition of home school. Nor does it change any state’s laws. It is a narrowly tailored amendment to federal law that resolves the unequal treatment of home educators under current law. Congress would be wise to pass the Enhancing Educational Opportunities for all Students Act at the earliest opportunity. Doing so would affirm the distinctively American idea that parents have a fundamental, God-given right to direct the education of their children.