LINCOLN — Nebraska v. Thacker would make a good research assignment for a home-schooled kid.
In a victory for home-schoolers, the Nebraska Supreme Court said Friday that parents who teach their children need not strictly follow a public school calendar to comply with state law. What matters is that home-schooling parents make sure students get the required hours of instruction.
The high court ruled in favor of a Farnam, Neb., couple, saying they did not violate the law by refusing to enroll their children in public school while they were filing paperwork to set up a home school. Attorneys in the case called it a precedent for Nebraska.
“It's a pretty decisive defeat for the viewpoint that kids belong to the government first and the family second,” said Michael Farris, a lawyer who helped litigate the case for the Home School Legal Defense Association.
Michael Johnson, the deputy prosecutor in Dawson County who brought charges against the parents, said he was disappointed in the high court's opinion.
“I think it creates a loophole for home-schoolers,” Johnson said.
The case involves Eric Thacker and Gail Morgan-Thacker, both convicted of violating the compulsory education law. They were charged with misdemeanors for failing to enroll their five children in school during the first several weeks of the 2011 school year.
The Thackers said they were simply waiting to start their home-school sessions in November, which would have still left them adequate time to meet the minimum hours of instruction required by law.
The state requires at least 1,080 hours of instruction for high school students and 1,032 hours for elementary students each school year. In the Thackers' case, they had until June 30, 2012, to get the hours in.
The parents were convicted after a one-day trial before a county court judge. The judge ordered no fines against them.
The couple appealed the convictions, arguing the state failed to prove that the Thackers didn't have enough time to meet the minimum hours. The district court found in their favor.
The Dawson County prosecutor appealed, arguing that the state has an obligation to ensure kids receive an education.
The couple, who had moved to Nebraska from New Jersey, were told of their need to apply for a home-school exemption by a public school official. When they failed to comply after the Aug. 17, 2011, start of the school year, an investigation was launched and charges were filed.
State law was ambiguous on the question of whether the parents had to enroll their children in school while waiting to file their paperwork with the state, the prosecutor said Friday.
The high court found the hours of instruction matter more than schedules. Home schools, under the law, are classified as “exempt.”
“We do not agree that a child must be attending a recognized exempt school each day of the public school calendar year,” Judge William Connolly wrote in the court's opinion.
Several parents who home-school said Friday that families follow a variety of schedules, typically settling on what works best for their lifestyles.
Tricia Croushorn of Omaha, president of the Home Educators Network, said home schools focus on the instruction hours and tailor their schedules accordingly.
“How you do that is up to you,” she said.
Michelle Myers of Omaha, who home-schools her four children, said her family follows the public school calendar because her husband is a public school teacher. They want to take breaks when he does.
But other families may choose to take time off during the public school year. “Just like home schools, it's so individual,” she said.
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