November 7, 2005

Fields vs. Palmdale School District decision

Last week a decision was passed by the three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals located in California. The case, Fields vs. Palmdale School District, has gained much media attention and reactions in the homeschool community.

The case is in regards to a school district that conducted a survey of children in their district which included questions regarding "sexual matters" to children as young as 7 years old. Several parents sued the school district. There was a consent formed involved, however parents were upset that it did not specifically mention that the topic of sex would be covered in the questions.

There has been many negative responses to this ruling within the homeschool community and I am not sure that as home educators this is our best response. My overall feeling about the decision after reading and researching it is that it is simply a reality check for parents who choose to send their kids to public schools. It is also a positive reaffirmation of a parent's right to homeschool their child.

I read through the court case online and actually it does support parents right to choose a child's school quite strongly. As homeschoolers this decision just furthers the rights of parents to select whom teaches their children. The decision does support that parents do not have either a Privacy right or a standing in the particulars of the subjects taught to their children BY the public school (not by themselves). Of course they still can have influence with PTA, district and always have the right to remove their child. However, the court is protecting itself from individuals parents coming to the courts with individual objections to what is or is not taught by a particular school district.

The issue seems more heightened because the subject involves young children and sexual content. While I too disagree about children being asked the questions they were that does not mean it is the jurisdiction of the courts to allow parents to sue the school district. The parents did have a release form that when read carefully would make many parents hesitate to allow their children to take it in my opinion. It stated things they would look for such as anxiety, depression, aggression, verbal abuse and violence. It states that answering the questions may make your child uncomfortable and they will have the research coordinator assist in finding further psychological help if it is required. They also clearly outline that you could opt out. I am thinking this would or atleast should send up red flags for parents. It also provides a phone number and address for contacting the research coordinator with further questions. You can read it in the case which can be found at

This court ruling is controversial because it deals with "sexual matters". However, the court could just as easily substitute the word math for the words "sexual manners" and the uproar would not be the same. Yet the legal standing is. In reality if you choose to send your child to a public school you are authorizing the school to teach them. You are giving up some of your say inherently when you put them in the school system. Of course you can still try to influence the school and can always decide to leave a school.

The court case states that their is "no fundamental right of parents to be the exclusive provider of information regarding sexual matters to their children" - to have the right to be an "exclusive provider" is not enforceable by law and I agree with that. We try to keep our kids in environments consistent with what they are learning and when but reality is they learn from the world around them all the time. The decision goes on to state that parents have no right or standing to override the determination of the public schools about the information presented on a particular subject. Again remember this is in the context of standing in court. This to me also makes sense as law and is yet another reason we homeschool.

While I too had an initial bristling over the types of questions kids were asked. I place the responsibility more on the parents who did not read the release form carefully or did not call to ask follow up questions. The school district did respond to parental discontent and discontinued the use of the study.

We as homeschoolers need to be careful not to have a knee jerk reaction against something because it sounds or feels wrong. We need to investigate it further. The decision that came down is really just a reality check for parents who send their children to school, such a choice decreases your direct authority over what your child learns and does not learn. The decision that came down uses strong language that as homeschoolers we can turn to our advantage. The decision citing other cases such as Yoder, Myers Pierce and Brown and blue (see case for full citations) and states that one conclusion established is "the right of parents to be free from state interference with their choice of the educational forum itself, a choice that ordinarily determines the type of education one's child will receive."

The only part of the decision that I felt some initial concern over was when I thought it was overreaching to state that parents had no right to bring up children by introducing them to subjects of sexual matters according to their religious and personal values. However, the court does qualify and limit itself from overreaching by following immediately with "we conclude only that parents are possessed of no constitutional right to prevent the public schools from providing information on that subject to their students in any forum or manner they select."

While this decision would not make me feel comfortable if I had a student in the school district I would rest assured with the fact that I have the right to take them out of that school and to assume responsibility for their education myself. In the end the logic of the court seems to be straightforward and while the consequences may not be pleasant for those in the public school system that does not make them off the legal mark.

Read the case for yourself and decide.

Chalk one more reason up for why we homeschool.
Just my .02


  1. I appreciate and applaud your thoughtful approach. It is refreshing to read a well-written, logical response to an emotionally-charged issue.

    I have not yet read the case, but there is something I don’t understand—maybe you can help. Obviously, parents do not have a right to be “exclusive providers” of sexual information because that is not enforceable by law. However, why should the schools have the right to provide this information? Sex and math are not the same. Must they be the same under the law?

  2. This case is not truly about the school providing information on a subject in the form of teaching. The school district was taking an "opt-IN" survery where parents had to sign a consent form. While it is true that the consent form does not specefically mention that topic it does mention other topics that could be an indicator to parents. After reading the consent form and acknowledging that the parents here had a choice and had information available to them to ask more questions about the survey but did not the responsibility here lies on the parents.

    The dicta of the court is not setting a new precedent. The decision itself is one of jurisdiction related to this particular survey. While their language may be more wide reaching it is not formulating policy. The sentences that people are most upset with do seem to limit themselves to the case at hand. This is a juridiction issue where the court found no fundamental right protected by due proccess or privacy of the parents. The decision goes on to outline atleast 5 other cases where the school district has won over parents with regards to information about "sexual matters" and their children.

    The decision affirms the right of parents to choose their child's education forum but does not "afford parents a right to compel public schools to follow their own idiosyncratic views as to what information the schools may dispense." The decision goes on to further explain that schools "cannot be expected to accomadate the personal, moral or religious concerns of every parent. Such an obligation would not only contravene the educational mission of public schools but would be impossible to satisfy." In this section they outline that the distinction between sexuality and other topics cannot be made on a firm objective guideline as it is subjective to many different beliefs and approachs.

    If you take a moment to think about it this approach makes sense. On issues of morality (or issues that can be charged with morality claims) who gets to make the decision. Whose morality is included and what is the plumbline used to make the cut. This is the reason the court tries to keep the laws neutral and that does have negative side effects like grouping sex, health, and social studies all together. I too cringe in response but I also know enough about law to understand the importance of doing the best we can (given our diverse society) to keep it as nuetral as possible. For while my morality may win in court today, tommorrow it may lose and I may find myself having to teach my children that aetheists are right and so on. It is the same reason that even though I am a solid Christian I support the basic human rights of all people, even those that have different beliefs and values then myself. That is not to say I support agenda items but rather items that should be nuetral to all people.

    While I too am appaled that young children were subjected to this. The place for this is not in the courts. The parents complained to the school district and it did drop the survey. The parents could have said no to the survey and not signed a consent form. The parents were given information to ask more questions and chose not too. To allow the court to take on this case opens it up for many many more to come. Parents still have rights and they can choose to exercise them or not too. I recently answered a similar question via email - the question was more specefic to issues of a "nanny state" and protecting liberty and freedoms. I will post my response below as I believe some of it is pertinent to this question.

    Answer to previous question....

    The difference in this case is that the parents are given the right to opt out of it (the survey). They are not given the right to sue the School district because they chose not to opt out. The dicta of the court is not taking away parental rights. The court is still citing legal precedents for what they are talking about. They are not making new legislation or truly even setting a new precedent. Cases like this have existed before on other subjects. It is however informing parents that they do not have jurisdiction in the court to fight every difference of opinion they have with the school district in court.

    I do understand that not everyone may have the same opportunities to homeschool their children. I also understand that is important to protect our rights and the rights of our fellow citizens. I am against subjective law for that very reason. Yet there is some inherent truth to what the court says that once you place your child into the school system you are giving the school system authority to educate your child. You choose the system and school you place your child in. You also have the choice not to place them in it. You also have the right to teach your child and prepare them for things ahead of time.

    In this case the school district did provide a consent form. A place to go for further questions and enough information that parents could be aware it was a sensitive survey. If we open the door to parental veto over everything a school system teaches we can tie our courts up for years to come with a wide range of parental vetoing. One Muslim family wants the Koran taught, another Christian family the Bible and a lesbian family bisexual literature. Another family is offended by this and wants their child excluded from it. The reality is we are a diverse nation and our children are exposed to a wide variety of backgrounds and beliefs at an early age. In a case where a school district has presented this with an opt-in consent form (not even an opt out one) the parents have to assume a certain level of responsibility.

    These discussions are handled in the school districts themselves through the appropriate means. Parents are not stripped of their rights through this decision. It unclear to me how this decision is more than a restating of what has already been accepted. There may be some dicta that is inflammatory however no major legal precedent is being shifted or created here.

    I guess it can depend on your perspective and how you frame it. Because I do not see this as an infrigement on liberty. What goes on in Germany with the country trying to take children away from their parents yes that is a drastic liberty issue. The court here however is not mandating that you send your child to a school you disagree with. Yes it is easier, more conveinant and sometimes the only option people have to send their to the free public school in their area. Ultimately however the choice is still theirs. However, this does not strip them of their liberty and their freedom. Remember the shoe can easily go the other way and people with completely different value systems and beliefs can demand it is their way or the highway. That is why keeping the law objective and not subjective has been important. Which brings me full circle to the issue of substituting the word "sexual matters" for "new math" or "evolution" or "social studies" and we realize the logic of the court is to keep the law neutral.

    In heart and in spirit I agree with you on matters of religious freedom and personal values. However, by the letter of the law to keep the distinction clear is important. The same case can then be used for the evolution/creator case. I guess in the end I read the actual case and the law it cites and I don't see some earth shattering ground breaking violation of parental authority occuring. I don't even see any additional step towards the erosion to liberty happening here. Parents have been abdicating certain authority over the content of what their child is being taught the moment they send them to a location. To take all the responsibility off the parents is also a mistake in my opinion. Ultimately they have the right to chose how their child is educated but sometimes that means choosing a different option.

    Of course I am not a lawyer so I offer no legal counsel just my own opinion. Take it for whatever it is worth. I do encourage you to actually read the case for yourself to understand the context and the legal precedents they are talking about and citing in their decision.


  3. Thank you for your response, Tenniel. I read the case and I can see why the court ruled the way it did, especially considering the precedent there is for ruling in favor of schools teaching sex and passing out condoms.

    I also thought the court was very supportive of the parents' right to choose where their children attend school. I see no other way they can go. If public schools are going to be subjecting children to sexually explicit material, then parents definitely must have the right to choose whether or not to send their children to those schools. (And on a less-controversial/emotionally-charged level, if parents don't like the math program at a school they can also choose not to send their children there.)

    Again, thank you for your positive example of doing the research before forming an opinion.

  4. I will admit that at first I had a hard time and wanted to be unhappy with the decision. But after reading it while I am against the fact that the ps exposed young children to this kind of material that does not make their decision automatically wrong. My husband encouraged me to see that and to investigate further.

    In the end I believe the decision is right and does not do any more or less harm that the precedent that was already out there. If anything it does help to strengthen the rights of us as homeschoolers and all who choose an alternative to the ps system. The right to choose not to send our kids. It also should serve, I hope, as a wake up call to all those in ps to be aware and involved and active in their school districts and to keep themselves abreast of all that is being taught to their children.

    There also is a reminder that parents need to be responsible and accountable for their own choices. After all the children in this case could only take a "potentially uncomfortable" survey about issues such as depression, anxiety and violence with their parents consent. To leave that part of the story out lays all the blame on the school district and no responsibility on the parents.

    Just MHO.