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State Schools über Alles

Sillars, Les. "State Schools über Alles." World, 15 July 2000, 25-26.


In the town of Schloss Holte-Stukenbroch, Germany, three months ago, three police officers forced open Johann Harder's living room window and stormed through the house.

They overturned furniture, pawed through closets, shouted at the children, broke Mr. Harder's camera when he tried to photograph the terrifying ordeal, and ripped seven-year-old Irene, crying hysterically, from the arms of her mother. They eventually left, taking 11-year-old Anna with them. Mr. Harder now faces thousands of dollars in fines and possibly jail.

His crime?

The Harders homeschool their children.

In America Homeschooling is rapidly gaining public acceptance, buoyed by recent media reports of how homeschooled children earned the top three places at this year's National Spelling Bee. But in Europe homeschooling is still far outside the mainstream. Most countries tolerate it, but none encourage it and in some, like Germany, it is illegal.

Mr. Harder moved his family to Germany five years ago from Russia, where his forefathers fled 200 years ago seeking religious freedom. The Harders have 11 children, the oldest 24 years and the youngest three months old. Written accounts by the Harder family and other witnesses were translated for World by Richard Guenther, an American businessman living in Germany, and his German wife Ingrid. They describe the Harders as a "very committed" Christian family belonging to a Baptist church.

At first Mr. Harder, a maintenance worker, sent his children to the public schools, although the sex education, acceptance of homosexuality, and "occultism" (in-class meditation sessions) troubled him. Last fall he began teaching them a correspondence curriculum at home. This was illegal--education laws very among German states, but in general children must attend school, normally defined as an institution located permanently in one place and organized in a traditional manner with certified teachers. The laws make no provision for homeschooling. "In school, the consciences are being destroyed," he wrote, "but for us, conscience is number one!"

City authorities promptly and repeatedly threatened Mr. Harder with fines and worse, but he held fast. In November a municipal court awarded custody of his children to a local lawyer, but an appeals court immediately overturned the order on the grounds that the children faced no immediate danger.

The threats continued, but authorities delayed further action until the Harders' newest baby, Samuel, arrived on March 18. After that, Mr. Harder wrote, "for about two weeks we lived like gypsies, getting up early with the four school-age children and studying in the forest. The third time the police came [March 30], they caught us at home..."

At about 8:00 a.m., Mr. Harder left his keys inside and stepped out to meet the officers and a school official, while Mrs. Harder locked the door behind him. When he refused to surrender the children, they broke in and began searching. Timo, 15, and Nelli, 13, sneaked out an attic window and then dashed through the forest to the home of their married sister, Lilli. The officers found Irene and Anna cowering under a quilt.

"And then Mama came," wrote Irene. "And then three police came and ripped me away from Mama. Two police dragged me downstairs. Then I ran to Papa, and hung onto him tightly. And then Papa and I went into the bedroom. Then the police wanted to pull me from Papa's arms."

Giving up on Irene, who was frantic, the police drove Anna to the local public school. Mr. Harder followed in his own vehicle. The principal informed the father that if he intended to snatch Anna out of class, he must leave immediately. He did and came back to pick her up after school.

Anna has not been back since, nor have the police returned. Mrs. Harder was so traumatized she stopped producing milk for her infant. Mayor Hubert Erlichlandwehr, who authorized the raid was executed, has said that the father should be "temporarily taken out of society."

That may happen yet. An April 6 letter from the Mayor threatens Mr. Harder with fines of $250 per child per day. If he does not pay (and Mr. Harder could not afford such fines) he may be jailed and lose custody of his children. Mr. Harder was scheduled to appear in court on June 16, but the hearing has been postponed indefinitely.

Mr. Guenther says that German Christians are "just now beginning to awaken to the climate in the schools." There are probably only a few hundred homeschooling families in the country, many "underground" to avoid harassment. He believes that Mayor Erlichlandwehr is so determined to enforce Germany's compulsory attendance laws because he regards the issue as a power struggle and he wants to discourage other families from homeschooling. The Mayor noted in a letter to the Harders that the system is designed to produce a "German mindset" that promotes "fitting in" and submission to the state.

From a historical perspective, it is both fitting and ironic that German officials would attack a Christian homeschool family. German Reformers were among the first to propose state-financed public schools, for they wanted to teach people to read Scripture for themselves. "Neglect of education," Martin Luther wrote in 1524, "will bring the greatest ruin to the Gospel."

The "benevolent despots" of the 1700s, monarchs such as Frederick the Great of Prussia, created the beginning of the first national systems with laws requiring compulsory attendance, centralized administration, children divided into classes according to age, and standardized testing for university entrance. Although some monarchs sought to educate the middle class and (to a lesser degree) the masses partly for religious reasons, they also needed capable subjects.

This "Prussian model," as education analyst Samuel Blumenfeld describes it in his book Is Public Education Necessary?, spread throughout continental Europe, and later Great Britain and America, as increasingly secularized governments took responsibility for education in the 19th century. Some state education authorities, believing that control of the nation's schools gave them the power to reconstruct society in their own image, wanted to turn public education into something Martin Luther never would have imagined.

Today homeschooling is rare on the European continent. Police raids are uncommon, but many homeschool families endure low-level harassment, mainly fines and inspections, from officials who don't understand why anyone would deny their children a public education.

Sophie Haesen, who homeschools her three school-age children in Vieux Ferrette in eastern France, observes that homeschooling was legalized in 1882 but few people realize that. Several years ago a homeschooled child in a cult died of starvation, she recalls, and authorities cracked down with mandatory home inspections, with officials authorized to separate the child from the parent for interviews. It doesn't always happen, she says, but it can be "quite difficult" for the children.

Most French are "quite proud" of their secular history, continues Ms. Haesen. They think all homeschool families are either religious extremists or radical libertarians, part of the crowd who headed into the mountains to "grow up in freedom" after the 1968 Student Revolution. She quotes government estimates that 12,000 children in the country are homeschooled, but notes that the vast majority use the state curriculum.

In Switzerland, the two state religions are Catholicism and Lutheranism, so most Swiss consider those who homeschool for religious reasons "sectarian," says Rudolf Schmidheiny, a computer programmer in Winterthur. Homeschooling is legal in about two-thirds of Switzerland's 26 districts, but officials generally discourage it. In the small homeschool association he founded, over a third of the members are public school teachers. "They know what's going on" in the public schools, said Mr. Schmidheiny.

In contrast, American and British governments, slower to implement state-controlled education, are now more accepting of homeschooling. They were more inclined to regard education as the responsibility of home and church and did not establish compulsory public systems for both secondary and elementary ages until late in the 19th century. Both countries also have a significant evangelical presence, considerably stronger in the United States than in England.

Christians are the largest group in an American homeschool movement that is now the largest and most organized in the world, with around 1.5 million children. In England, where there are considerably fewer evangelicals and the Bible (if not Christianity) is openly taught in state-supported schools, even Christian parents are less inclined to seek alternatives to the public system. Chris Klinka, legal counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association based in Purcellville, Va., reports that England's homeschool movement is small but compared to some countries there seem to be few hassles with education authorities--at least compared to the Harder family's troubles.

Help for the Harders may be coming. Mr. Klicka says that HSLDA cannot represent Germans, but he is helping a handful of German lawyers organize a German version of HSLDA, to be formally established later this month. German homeschoolers are asking American homeschool supporters to write the German embassy in Washington on behalf of the Harders, says Mr. Klicka.

Mr. Klicka notes that letter-writing campaigns helped free a South African couple jailed for homeschooling in 1994 and helped convince the South African government to legalize homeschooling two years later.

"European homeschool families need to pool their resources so they can fight legal battles, lobby against bad legislation, and network with other families," says Mr. Klicka. "As it is now, [education officials] can pick them off one by one."

Reprinted with permission of the World.

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