From Yahoo.com updated march 1 2010
The Romeikes are not your typical asylum seekers. They did not come to the U.S. to flee war or despotism in their native land. No, these music teachers left Germany because they didn’t like what their children were learning in public school – and because homeschooling is illegal there.
“It’s our fundamental right to decide how we want to teach our children,” says Uwe Romeike, an Evangelical Christian and a concert pianist who sold his treasured Steinway to help pay for the move.
Romeike decided to uproot his family in 2008 after he and his wife had accrued about $10,000 in fines for homeschooling their three oldest children and police had turned up at their doorstep and escorted them to school. “My kids were crying, but nobody seemed to care,” Romeike says of the incident. (See pictures of a diverse group of American teens.)
So why did he seek asylum in the U.S. rather than relocate to nearby Austria or another European country that allows homeschooling? Romeike’s wife Hannelore tells TIME the family was contacted by the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which suggested they go to the U.S. and settle in Morristown, Tenn. The nonprofit organization, which defends the rights of the U.S. homeschooling community – with its estimated 2 million children, or about 4% of the total school-age population – is expanding its overseas outreach. And on Jan. 26, the HSLDA helped the Romeikes become the first people granted asylum in the U.S. because they were persecuted for homeschooling. (See pictures of East Germany making light of its past.)
The ruling is tricky politically for Washington and its allies in Europe, where several countries – including Spain and the Netherlands – allow homeschooling only under exceptional circumstances, such as when a child is extremely ill. That helps explain why in late February, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement formally appealed the Romeike ruling, which was issued by an immigration judge in Memphis, Tenn. His unprecedented decision has raised concerns that the already heavily backlogged immigration courts will be flooded with asylum petitions from homeschoolers in countries typically regarded as having nonrepressive governments.
“It’s very unusual for people from Western countries to be granted asylum in the U.S.,” says David Piver, an immigration attorney with offices in a Philadelphia suburb and Flagstaff, Ariz. In 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, only five Germans received asylum in the U.S. (The Justice Department declined to comment on specific cases.) Piver, who is not involved in the Romeike case, predicted the U.S. government would appeal the decision “so as not to offend a close ally.” (See the top 10 news stories of 2009.)
Successful asylum petitions typically involve applicants whose situations are more dire, such as women who were forced to undergo abortions or genital mutilation and men whose lives were threatened because they are homosexuals or political dissidents. But Piver believes the Memphis judge was right to grant the Romeikes asylum, since the law covers social groups with “a well-founded fear of persecution” in their home country.
In Germany, mandatory school attendance dates back to 1717, when it was introduced in Prussia, and the policy has traditionally been viewed as a social good. “This law protects children,” says Josef Kraus, president of the German Teachers’ Association. The European Court of Human Rights agrees with him. In 2006, the court threw out a homeschooling family’s case when it deemed Germany’s compulsory-schooling law as compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, an international treaty drafted in 1950. Given this backdrop, it’s little wonder the Romeikes came up against a wall of opposition when they tried to talk to their school principal about the merits of homeschooling.
One of the Romeikes’ concerns was about their kids getting bullied. But their main objection involved what was being taught in the classroom. “The curriculum goes against our Christian values,” Uwe says. “German schools use textbooks that force inappropriate subject matter onto young children and tell stories with characters that promote profanity and disrespect.”
While there are no official figures, it’s estimated that up to 1,000 German families are homeschooling their children. Elisabeth Kuhnle, a spokeswoman for a German advocacy group called the Network for the Freedom of Education, says a recent homeschooling meeting attracted about 50 families in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where the Romeikes used to live. She also reckons many German homeschooling families have relocated to countries like France and Britain, where homeschooling is allowed. (See the top 10 religion stories of 2009.)
In 2007, Germany’s Federal Supreme Court issued a ruling – which did not specifically involve the Romeikes – that parents could lose custody of their children if they continued to homeschool them. “We were under constant pressure, and we were scared the German authorities would take our children away,” Romeike says. “So we decided to leave and go to the U.S.”
German officials, for their part, note that the Romeikes had other options. “If parents don’t want to send their children to a public school, they can send them to alternative private schools,” says Thomas Hilsenbeck, a spokesman for the Baden-Württemberg education ministry. Homeschooling advocates counter that there are few private schools in Germany, and they tend to be expensive. But beyond that, many religious parents have problems with sex education and other curricular requirements. “Whether it’s a state school or a private school, there’s still a curriculum that is forced onto children,” says Kuhnle. (See pictures of Detroit school kids’ dreams of the future.)
And then there are the social aspects of going to school. Homeschooling parents tend to want to shield their children from negative influences. But this quest often runs counter to the idea that schools represent society and help promote tolerance. “No parental couple can offer a breadth of education [that can] replace experienced teachers,” says Kraus, of the German Teachers’ Association. “Kids also lose contact with their peers.”
Concerns that homeschooling could lead to insularity – or worse, as Kraus puts it, “could help foster the development of a sect” – are shaping policy debates in European countries. In Britain, for example, Parliament is considering legislation that would create a new monitoring system to ensure that homeschooled kids get a suitable education. (See the 25 best back-to-school gadgets.)
In Sweden, where parents have to apply for permission to teach their children at home, the government is planning to impose even tougher restrictions on homeschoolers. And in Spain, parents are not allowed to educate their children at home. Period. If a child has special needs that prevent him from attending school, a teacher will be sent to his home.
By contrast, homeschooling is legal in all 50 U.S. states, some of which don’t require families to notify authorities of their intent to teach their children at home. Tennessee is among the states that require some form of notice as well as periodic assessment tests.
When Uwe and Hannelore heard that the judge had ruled in their favor, they celebrated by taking their five children – who range in age from 4 to 12 – to Baskin-Robbins for ice cream. But the next day, they were back to their regular schedule. Lessons start at 9 a.m. and end at around 4 p.m. The school-age kids are learning all the usual subjects – math, science, etc. – with the help of textbooks and other teaching materials, in compliance with state law. The family has also joined a local group that organizes activities and field trips once a week for homeschooled children.
Meanwhile, the HSLDA says it is working to defend a homeschooling family in Sweden and is investigating cases in Brazil, where homeschooling is banned – all good fodder for a comparative-government class, whether it’s taught in school or at home.
The original version of this article has been updated to reflect the fact that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has submitted an appeal requesting to overturn the judge’s decision to grant the Romeikes asylum.