It was 8:00 in the morning on August 29, 2013 in the quiet village of Darmstadt, Germany. Inside the Wunderlich home, Dirk and Petra and their four children—ages 7 to 14—bustled about their morning routine of breakfast, chores, and lessons. Suddenly, the doorbell rang. Then the doorbell rang again. Urgently.
Dirk and Petra exchanged anxious glances. As Dirk went to the window, his heart sank. Official-looking vehicles had descended on Darmstadt, and a team of 20 armed police officers, special agents, and government officials was pouring into the street. “We need to speak with you!” barked an officer through the door. When Dirk tried to ask a few questions, he immediately saw three policemen preparing a battering ram to break down the door. He quickly opened it, and the SWAT team swarmed inside, shoving Dirk into a chair and announcing that they had an order to remove all four children.
A short time later, the cars drove away with the Wunderlichs’ children inside. Dirk and Petra hadn’t even been given a chance to hug them goodbye. “It’s too late for that,” an officer growled as he elbowed Petra away from her frightened 14-year-old daughter. A neighbor stood watching nearby, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Dirk and Petra Wunderlich lost their children simply for the crime of home schooling. Families like the Wunderlichs believe the government’s prescribed curriculum undermines their Christian worldview. For them, educating their children at home in accordance with their religious beliefs is a matter of conscience.
If this raid on the Wunderlich home is uncomfortably reminiscent of Germany’s fascist past, that’s not accidental. A Nazi-era law, still in force today, mandates that all German children attend a school teaching the state curriculum. In the court order authorizing the raid, the judge signed off on use of force “against the children” if necessary, noting that the children had “adopted the parents’ opinions” regarding home schooling.
Court documents, obtained and translated by the U.S.-based home school advocacy organization Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), further reveal that the children’s lack of school attendance was the only basis for their removal from the home. No allegations of child abuse or neglect were made against the Wunderlichs. Neither did the government allege that the children were being educationally neglected.
The German government makes no secret of the fact that its rigid enforcement of mandatory state education is not about maintaining educational standards but, rather, about ensuring the philosophical homogeneity of German citizens. The government fears that children who are unduly influenced by religious parents will miss out on the “tolerance” being taught to them in German schools, thereby threatening society with their “intolerant” ideas.
Ruling against a home schooling family in 2003, the German Federal Constitutional Court stated: “The general public has a justified interest in counteracting the development of religiously or philosophically motivated ‘parallel societies’ and in integrating minorities in this area.”
Could it Happen in America?
While a brave few German families continue to risk their government’s wrath and home school underground, over two million children across America are waking up each morning to start their school day at home. Home education in America has become—if not mainstream—at least well-established, and it is growing at a rate seven times faster than public schools. Legal in all 50 states since 1993, home schooling has a clear track record of academic success which is difficult to deny. Furthermore, the fact that one in every 25 children is now schooled at home renders the practice personally familiar to most Americans.
It’s understandable, then, that Germany’s violent raid against the Wunderlich family is igniting sympathy and outrage here in America. But beyond the excessive force employed, it’s the motive behind the methods that should make us sit up and take notice.
The idea that government may undermine the parent-child relationship for the express purpose of suppressing unpopular religions or philosophies should be anathema not just to home schooling families, but to anyone who values freedom. The liberties we think of as quintessentially American—freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly—were all designed specifically to protect those holding unpopular opinions and philosophies.
“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” wrote the Supreme Court in West Virginia v. Barnette (1943), “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
However, these oppressive ideas are not exclusive to Germany. Recent voices within American academia have been echoing the German government’s attitude toward home schooling and private education. Like the German government, these legal scholars are far less interested in maintaining academic standards than they are in wielding philosophical control. And like Germany, they turn the idea of “tolerance and diversity” on its head, mouthing their support for these values while advocating in reality for enforced homogeneity of belief and intolerance of minority views. More than anything, they fear the societal “dangers” of allowing religious parents to transmit their values to their children.
Such views are certainly en vogue inside America’s faculty lounges. “Society need not and should not tolerate the inculcation of absolutist views that undermine toleration of difference,” wrote Catherine Ross, a law professor at Georgetown University, in 2010. “An argument that tolerance for diverse views and values is a foundational principle does not conflict with the notion that the state can and should limit the ability of intolerant home schoolers to inculcate hostility to difference in their children.”
Kimberly Yuracko, professor of law at Northwestern University, has also expressed similar concerns: “Virtually absent . . . has been any discussion of the extent to which a liberal society should condone or constrain home schooling, particularly as practiced by religious fundamentalist families explicitly seeking to shield their children from liberal values of sex equality, gender role fluidity and critical rationality.”
And like Ross and Yuracko, Emory law professor Martha Albert Fineman frets over “the risk that parents or private schools unfairly impose hierarchical or oppressive beliefs on their children.” However, Fineman arrives at an even more radical solution to this supposed problem—the total ban of home schooling and private schools. “Perhaps the more appropriate suggestion for our current educational dilemma is that public education should be mandatory and universal,” she writes.
Not only do these scholars advocate blatant intolerance in order to achieve the alleged goal of tolerance; they also argue for the forceful imposition of values by elites, in order to prevent the natural inculcation of values by parents. In a lengthy scholarly critique published in the Peabody Journal of Education, HSLDA chairman Michael Farris said of Ross: “She strongly opposes the practice of parents who impose their absolute values on their own children but apparently sees neither harm nor inconsistency in imposing her own absolute values on everyone’s children.”
Farris further noted the lack of dissenting voices from the broader academic establishment: “In the 1920s, academia correctly understood that banning private education to achieve philosophical sameness ‘seems to strike at the root of American toleration.’ . . . But today, it is voices from academia that urge employing compulsory attendance laws to achieve philosophical dominance over discrete minorities. Although the number making such claims may be few, the silence of the rest of the academy speaks volumes.”
And this radical opposition to private and home education isn’t only found in ivory towers. Voices from the media and popular culture have recently become louder in suggesting that parents embracing an individualized approach to education are at the root of America’s societal woes. Collectivism, they say, is the answer—even if it means sacrificing some children’s education in the meantime.
Allison Benedikt makes this case in the provocatively-titled article “If You Send Your Kids to Private School, You Are a Bad Person,” published by Slate in August 2013. Arguing with admirable naiveté that 100% enrollment in public schools would eventually improve the quality of public education, she says: “Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.”
Benedikt further explains that even though she herself received an admittedly inferior public education, the primary value of public school is not education, but rather integration. “Reading Walt Whitman in ninth grade changed the way you see the world? Well, getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near my house did the same for me. In fact it’s part of the reason I feel so strongly about public schools.”
This same argument is being made by opponents of state school choice measures: not that public schools provide a better education, but that they are necessary for social uniformity. The president of a Montana teachers’ union provides just one recent example, saying that “the whole purpose of [public education] is not just to teach math, or reading … but to educate us on how to live together, across the board.”
Perhaps most eyebrow-raising was this now-infamous statement by MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, on a commercial for the left-leaning network: “We have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities. Once it’s everybody’s responsibility, and not just the household’s, then we start making better investments.”
While Harris-Perry frames this argument in benign terms of “investments” and “responsibilities,” anyone with experience knows that responsibility and decision-making authority go hand-in-glove. If children belong to whole communities, then whole communities—usually in the form of government bodies—get to make decisions for children.
Obama Joins the Fray—on Germany’s Side
It was the fight over German home schooling which recently brought to light the Obama administration’s own views on educational freedom.
In 2008, German home schoolers Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, along with their five children, arrived in the United States and immediately applied for political asylum. Maintaining that the heavy fines, seizure of their children, and threats of jail time they faced in their native country constituted persecution, they asked for a safe haven in America.
During the two years it took for the asylum case to be heard, the Romeikes settled in small-town Tennessee and began making a new life for themselves. When their case was finally heard in 2010, the immigration judge not only granted their asylum petition, but issued an opinion strongly condemning Germany. Calling the country’s treatment of home schoolers “repellent to everything we believe as Americans,” the judge found that Germany had violated the Romeikes’ “basic human rights.”
The family’s victory was short-lived. Immigration officials immediately appealed the ruling, and in 2012 the Immigration Board of Appeals reversed the original decision granting asylum. The case was then appealed to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In April 2013, Romeike v. Holder went before a three-judge panel, with attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice arguing that the Romeikes should be deported back to Germany. They centered their case on the contention that home schooling is not a fundamental right, and that therefore governments are permitted to outlaw it for any reason. Furthermore, Justice lawyers argued, the Romeikes cannot claim a violation of religious freedom unless they can prove that all members of their faith share their beliefs on home education. In other words, the free exercise of religion is not an individual right, but rather a collective one. These arguments—made by attorneys within the Obama administration—are both revealing and stunning in their disregard for basic freedoms.
The court issued its ruling a month later. Although it acknowledged that the Constitution recognizes the rights of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their children, it disagreed that Germany’s harsh treatment of home schoolers constituted persecution as defined by our laws on asylum. The Romeikes’ petition for asylum was denied.
The case is currently awaiting one final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. For now, the Romeikes are still in Tennessee, teaching their children, trusting in God, and waiting.
In the meantime, Uwe Romeike sees his case, and the Obama administration’s role in it, as a warning for Americans. “If the government is saying that home education is . . . no fundamental right that parents have, then I think that should be very alarming,” he says. “Because that’s what we see in Germany: that the government decides what children have to learn. If the government now decides what children learn, and a whole generation is formed by this point of view, then that means the next generation wouldn’t believe in freedom anymore.”
Is Home Schooling a Fundamental Right?
Uwe Romeike has history to back him up. Totalitarian dictators throughout the past century have fully grasped the importance of indoctrinating children to ensure their dogma takes root. They have also understood that in order to do this, they must drive a wedge in the relationship between parent and child.
Adolf Hitler, who instituted the Hitler Youth in 1926 and made it compulsory for German children a decade later, explained this strategy: “When an opponent declares, ‘I will not come over to your side,’ I say calmly, ‘Your child belongs to us already. What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing but this new community’.”
Of course, the current German government’s abuse of power here isn’t really comparable to atrocities committed by the Nazis. However, contemporary German leaders and liberal American elites ought to be well-aware that robust parental rights have historically been an invaluable bulwark against totalitarianism. This is especially true of the parental right to direct the education of one’s own child.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in the wake of World War II, states unequivocally that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (Art. 26(3)). Similarly, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights requires its signatory states (including Germany) to show “respect for the liberty of parents … to choose for their children schools, other than those established by the public authorities, which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” (Art. 13(3))
And despite the Obama administration’s suspiciously novel courtroom arguments, American law has long recognized the fundamental right of parents to direct their children’s education. The Supreme Court made this clear in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925): “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”
Unlike Germany, America has a very strong tradition of liberty and individual rights. With the residual influence of men like Madison and Jefferson still present in our culture, there is far more natural resistance to the notion that the child is “the mere creature of the State.” Residual influence, however, lasts only so long. With academic, media, and political elites growing ever bolder in their dismissal of traditional parental rights, advocates for home schooling are under attack.
All Americans who value liberty, regardless of their personal educational choices, will be impacted by the fate of home education. The freedom to home school is the most visible expression of parental rights exercised against the power of the state. But it becomes even more crucial when it functions as a shield for the freedom of conscience itself. Every person has the absolute right to hold his or her own beliefs, even if those beliefs contradict the prevailing orthodoxy of the day. If teaching your children unpopular beliefs becomes illegal, your right to hold unpopular opinions under any circumstances could soon be in doubt.