Features

A discordant note

National | Lawsuit asks: Are all taxpayers entitled to use public schools?

Issue: "Federal Testing," Sept. 13, 1997

GUTHRIE, OKLA.--Just inside the kitchen door of the Swanson family's home is a growing stack of dolls, clothes, and toys-items reclaimed at the last minute from the garage sale being conducted outside.

Occasionally throughout the day, one of the five children will get sentimental about something. Mom Lucy Swanson doesn't seem to mind that the small pile inside is slowly growing; it's her kids' stuff, she reasons, and they have a right to it.

Her attitude toward the Guthrie school district is similar. For three years now, the family has been battling the school administration over the right of Annie, now 16, to take choir and a math class at the local public high school.

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Lucy homeschools her five children (Annie is the eldest; the youngest is four), but when Annie began to show some promise vocally, she wanted to enroll her in choir, while homeschooling her for everything else. That was fine with the district during Annie's seventh-grade year; the superintendent was agreeable to the wishes of homeschoolers. But the next year, a new superintendent told Lucy that Annie was no longer welcome. He accused her of only wanting to "use the system," she recounts.

"Yes, I wanted it both ways," she admits today. Lucy is an energetic mom, playful with her kids and resolute in her opinions. "But that's my right. We pay taxes to the school district-$500 to $600 per year. And in a hearing, the superintendent admitted that our taxes more than covered their cost of letting Annie take those classes."

Still, the district had no intention of letting Annie return, and was willing to go to court instead. This case, which could be heard this fall, is being watched by homeschool groups all over the country. At issue is the right of parents to have control over the education-and the amount of public education-their children receive.

For her part, Annie says she was bewildered at first to be the cause of such controversy. "I couldn't figure out why I was such a big problem," says Annie, a small girl with a ready grin and her mother's smiling cheekbones. "I wasn't causing trouble. I didn't know why anyone would care whether I was there or not."

here are three similar cases in other parts of the country:

In West Salem, Wis., the family of an eighth-grade boy has been told he can't play sports at the junior high school. The Rutherford Institute (which has helped with the Swansons' case) plans to take the district to court, because the district does allow private- and parochial-school students to play on its teams. Homeschools are not equivalent to private schools, the district maintains.

In Virginia, a high-school athlete has been denied a spot on the varsity football team because he's homeschooled. His parents are fighting that ruling.

But parents may find their strongest argument in the hulking form of Jason Taylor, 23, the new starting right defensive end for the Miami Dolphins. The young Mr. Taylor was homeschooled, but played for a Pittsburgh-area high school football team.

(Local legend has it that Jason was outside working on his car when the high school football coach drove by. He saw the boy and stopped his car to ask Jason why he wasn't on his football team).

Though he only played high-school ball for two years, Mr. Taylor won a football scholarship to Akron University. The NCAA tried to deny his scholarship because of homeschooling, according to a lawsuit filed by the Home School Legal Defense Association, whose lawyers stepped in and helped defend the scholarship. The Dolphins drafted Mr. Taylor last spring (he was their third pick) and moved him to a starting position at the beginning of the season. So far three quarterbacks (including Green Bay's Bret Favre) have developed deeper relationships with the turf as a result of Mr. Taylor's enthusiastic play.

Still, some school districts will only be persuaded by legal means, homeschool advocates say. Meantime, in lieu of choir classes at the public high school, Annie Swanson has been taking private voice lessons. Now in her junior year, she's hoping those lessons will be enough to win her a vocal scholarship to college.

Miss Swanson's attorney expects the case to make it to court by the fall, but win or lose, the glacial pace of the legal system likely will keep her out of the public high-school choir. Although it won't help her, Miss Swanson hopes the case will help keep her siblings and other homeschoolers from having to sing the blues. "It's a little disappointing, but I'm glad my case might help some other students," she says. "I don't see myself as a crusader, but it feels good to do something you know is right."

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