Preference for Public School Over Homeschooling -- and Maybe Private Schooling -- Because It Provides "Exposure to Different Points of View"?

That's what this New Hampshire trial court decision, in In re Kurowski & Voydatch seems to say. The 10-year-old daughter lives during the week with her mother, Ms. Voydatch, who homeschools her. The father, Mr. Kurowski, objected to the homeschooling, and the court adopted the father's proposal that the girl be sent to public school, apparently for largely these reasons:

[The daughter] appeared to reflect her mother's rigidity on questions of faith. [The daughter] challenged the counselor to say what the counselor believed, and she prepared some highlighted biblical text for the counselor to read over and discuss, and she was visibly upset when the counselor (purposely) did not complete the assignment....

The Guardian ad Litem ... concluded that the daughter would be best served by exposure to different points of view at a time in her life when she must begin to critically evaluate multiple systems of belief and behavior and cooperation in order to select, as a young adult, which of those systems will best suit her own needs....

[T]he Guardian ad Litem [also] echoed her previous concerns that Amanda's relationship with her father suffers to some degree by her belief that his refusal to adopt her religious beliefs and his choice instead to spend eternity away from her proves that he does not love her as much as he says he does....

[T]he Court is guided by the premise that education is by its nature an exploration and examination of new things, and by the premise that a child requires academic, social, cultural, and physical interaction with a variety of experiences, people, concepts, and surroundings in order to grow to an adult who can make intelligent decisions about how to achieve a productive and satisfying life.

The parties do not debate the relative academic merits of home schooling and public school: it is clear that the home schooling Ms. Voydatch has provided has more than kept up with the academic requirements of the [local] public school system. Instead, the debate centers on whether enrollment in public school will provide [the daughter] with an increased opportunity for group learning, group interaction, social problem solving, and exposure to a variety of points of view.... [T]he Court concludes that it would be in [the daughter's] best interests to attend public school....

In reaching this conclusion, the Court is mindful of its obligation not to consider the specific tenets of any religious system unless there is evidence that those tenets have been applied in such a way as to cause actual harm to the child. The evidence in this case does not rise to that level, and therefore the Court has not considered the merits of [the daughter's] religious beliefs, but considered only the impact of those beliefs on her interaction with others, both past and future. The Court declines to impose any restrictions on either party's ability to provide [the daughter] with religious training or to share with [the daughter] their own religious beliefs.

The decision is just about home schooling by one divorced parent, where the other parent wants the child sent to public school. But it would in principle also apply to similar disputes over private religious schooling (or private ideologically grounded schooling), since there too the other parent might complain that the schooling is too limited in the "points of view" to which the child is exposed. (Of course, some public schools might be quite limited in the points of view that they teach, and even in the points of view expressed by most students; but my guess is that few courts would be willing to say so.)

The broad principle might also apply beyond divorced families. To be sure, in practice American courts rarely intervene in the educational decisions of intact families, at least absent some evidence of significant abuse. Likewise, the legal standard for such intervention in intact families is much more demanding (requiring some showing that the parents' approach risks causing imminent harm to the child, and not just a judgment that departing from the custodial parent's approach would be in the child's best interests).

But if the legal system becomes genuinely concerned about the supposed lack of "different points of view" to which a child is exposed, that concern should if anything be greater when the child is in an intact family — where both parents are likely to be exposing the child to the same viewpoint — than when the child is in a divorced family in which the parents have different viewpoints. At least in this case, the father could expose the daughter to viewpoints other than the mother's (though that might be quite hard given the daughter's pushback, which in turn seems likely to stem in large part from the mother's greater time with the daughter). In an intact family that homeschools a child or sends the child to private school, the child might not get any "different points of view" from any trusted adult or even from other children. So the logic of this decision, if accepted, might well eventually carry over to decisions about intact families, too.

And the decision strikes me as constitutionally troublesome, whether implemented in broken families or in intact families. It may well be in the child's best interests to be exposed to more views in public school — or it may well be in the child's best interests to avoid the views that public school will expose her to. Those are not judgments that courts should generally make given the First Amendment.

That's especially so since it's hard to imagine courts actually adopting a facially supposedly viewpoint-neutral approach that "exposure to more viewpoints is better." I take it that if a racist parent was complaining that the other parent wasn't exposing their daughter to a wide range of viewpoints on the subject of racism, a judge wouldn't consider that; likewise for a wide range of other views. Likewise, the judge seems to have been moved by the conclusion that the daughter was "rigid[] on questions of faith"; presumably if the mother were teaching the child less "rigid" views about religion, the judge would not have been as troubled (though some other judge might have been more troubled). Judges' decisions that more viewpoints are better will almost always be based on an evaluation of what those viewpoints are likely to be, and what viewpoints the child is being taught.

This having been said, the court decision asserts that the parents — who do have "joint decision-making responsibility" — had never agreed on the public schooling vs. homeschooling question, and "reserved for the Court the issue whether Amanda would attend public school for the 2009-2010 school year, or continue to be home schooled by Ms. Voydatch." Nor is the case like a normal parental speech dispute, in which, absent court action, both parents would be free to say whatever they wanted to the child. Here, a choice must be made between home-schooling and public schooling; the child can't do both. (The child could of course go to public school and learn more at home, but that would obviously be different from a standard home-schooling approach.) Nor is there an obvious neutral principle that could be followed here, for instance the child's likely academic success in either approach — it looks like the daughter is doing very well with home-schooling, but there seems to be no evidence that she won't do roughly as well with public schooling in this district. Nor can one have a preference for continuing the child's pre-divorce education; the parents had been divorced for pretty much the daughter's whole life.

My inclination, though, is that a court should generally try to choose some neutral basis for the decision that would not require it to evaluate the merits of various viewpoints, or to evaluate whether the daughter needs exposure to more viewpoints of the sort she's likely to get in public school. Even a preference for the choice of the primary residential custodian, however imperfect this might be, would at least keep courts out of deciding when a child's religious views are too "rigid." Government decisions about which schools children should go to, or what they should be taught, shouldn't be based on judges' views about which views are unduly rigid, or atheistic, or racist, or pro-gay-rights, or anti-gay, or what have you.

The Alliance Defense Fund has more on this case, including pointers to its filings in the case; I would of course also be glad to include links to the other side's filings, when and if such links become available. Thanks to Duncan Frissell for the pointer.