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In the debate over home schooling and 'parents' rights,' we need to remember children have rights too

David Eggen

Controversy in Alberta over the provincial government's decision to withdraw funding and accreditation from a private Christian school association that oversaw about a third of the province's home-schooled children offers a chance to cast a little light on the home schooling movement and its goals.

For while all sorts of parents home school their children for all sorts of reasons, the majority of the growing number of North American home schoolers are members of the Christian right, and their movement is driven by religious fundamentalist leaders with an agenda for curriculum, philosophy, and, ultimately, societal change that extends beyond their circle of co-religionists.

So it is easy, wrote journalist and author Katherine Stewart in 2013 in Britain's Guardian newspaper, even for well meaning parents "to get sucked into the vortex of fundamentalist home schooling because extremists have cornered the market.”

In practice, this means many home-schooled children are taught as God's word what only can be described as bigotry and intolerance. And it means the proselytizers of this worldview want to move us toward a society in which your children must be taught the same things.

Of course, in the case of the latest Alberta Christian-education controversy, we don't know what was being taught along with the provincial curriculum by home schooling families whose efforts were overseen by the Trinity Christian School Association and the Wisdom Home Schooling Society, which appear to have been run by members of the same families.

But while the specific reasons the province withdrew funding from Trinity and Wisdom are sensational, they are not really as important as understanding what drives the Christian home schooling and private evangelical school movement.

Knowing this, in turn, helps Albertans understand what the Opposition Wildrose Party is actually supporting when it accuses Alberta's NDP Government of undermining "parental rights" in education.

In a fundraising letter emailed to Wildrose supporters Wednesday, Leader Brian Jean excoriated the NDP Government for closing the two closely tied organizations, reaffirming his party's promise to "protect parent's (sic) right to choose the education their child receives whether it be through public, separate, public charter, private school or home schooling."

This position is a popular and effective wedge issue for conservative parties in both Canada and the United States, uncontroversial even among economic conservatives who are not religious fundamentalists because it meshes nicely with their own quasi-theological belief that markets always do a better job of everything than public services.

Indeed, in Alberta there is little evidence from what Education Minister David Eggen has said that the position of the NDP Government led by Premier Rachel Notley is all that different from the right-wing parties when it comes to "choice" in education.

Notwithstanding the Wildrose position, given the nature of the accusations against Trinity and Wisdom -- both operating out of the tiny East Central Alberta hamlet of Derwent -- the government did not appear to have many options but to try to stop sending per-student education grants to them.

Last week, the Globe and Mail reported that Alberta Education revoked the Trinity's registration and accreditation as a private-school operator after receiving a report that indicated money had been directed to a third party, Wisdom, which kept close to a million dollars "that was supposed to go to parents to fund their children's education over the last three years."

The 37-page review of Trinity's operations released by the government also indicated investigators concluded two families associated with Trinity and Wisdom were responsible for the problems, and that funds that should have been spent on education were improperly used for expenses including alcohol, gift cards, theatre tickets, babysitting, funeral costs and groceries.

The government has vowed to try to get the money back, and says it has reported its concerns to the RCMP and the Canadian Revenue Agency.

Representatives of Trinity and Wisdom are expected in court today in Grande Prairie to seek an injunction to stop the province from halting the funds until they have more time to argue they have done nothing wrong.

The Wildrose Opposition, meanwhile, would like you to believe the NDP has gone after Trinity and Wisdom for ideological reasons, to limit the right of parents to control what their children are taught.

But in a separate Globe story, the newspaper's reporter interviewed a former home student of the Trinity-Wisdom program, who said topics like evolution were not taught, she had few textbooks, and she was permitted to graduate without meeting basic standards in English and science.

In her Guardian article, Stewart quoted a former home-schooling student who said "the Christian home school subculture isn't a children-first movement. It is, for all intents and purposes, an ideology-first movement." The consequences, the former student asserted, "include anxiety, depression, distrust of authority, and issues around sexuality.”

A theme that crops up regularly in journalism on home schooling is the drive by Christian home schoolers to keep their children away from what they see as an evil, secular society. "Therein lies the heart of the Tea Party, GOP and religious right's paranoid view of the rest of us," wrote film director and former evangelical Frank Schaeffer in Salon last year.

"Evangelical schools and (the) home school movement were, by design, founded to undermine a secular and free vision of America and replace it by stealth with a form of theocracy," he argued.

"Evangelicals seemed to believe that Jesus commanded that all hospitals (and everything else) should be run by corporations for profit, just because corporations weren't the evil government," Schaeffer wrote. They "favoured private 'facts' too. They claimed that global warming wasn't real."

"The price for the religious right's wholesale idolatry of private everything was that Christ's reputation was tied to a cynical political party 'owned' by billionaires," the Salon article concluded. "The logic of their 'stand' against government had played into the hands of people who never cared about human lives beyond the fact that people could be sold products."

While it is likely too late to block the pernicious home schooling trend in Canada, perhaps it is time in the interests of society to bring all home schooling in the country directly under the supervision of a public school board.

Right now, every public school board in Alberta is capable of overseeing the efforts of parents who choose to educate their children at home while ensuring those students graduate qualified to attend university. Not so many years ago, a provincial correspondence branch supervised the instruction of home-schooled students in many provinces.

Because of conservative parties' ideological rhetoric, all we've been talking about is "parents' rights." Maybe it's time to remember children have rights too.

NOTE at 11 p.m., Nov. 4, 2016: Justice E.J. Simpson of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench ruled in Grande Prairie today that Trinity and Wisdom may continue to operate without government funding until a hearing set for Jan. 5, 2017. The judge described this decision as protecting both students and Alberta taxpayers. Education Minister David Eggen said in a short statement that “I have been informed that the court in Grande Prairie has granted what the judge characterized as an interim-interim injunction …. It is important to note that today’s ruling was not a final determination on the merits of the case. We stand behind the actions that we have taken to date based on the evidence made public in the audit. “Our priority, as always, is our students and ensuring that every public dollar is spent to ensure they are getting a high-quality education. We will continue to work with all home education providers in the province to support students and parental choice in education.” Observe Eggen's continued support for “parental choice in education,” which suggests again as argued above that the NDP position on this question is not far removed from that of the right-wing parties. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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