I know I just wrote about the German School System a few weeks ago, but a German court decision on homeschooling that was announced today has put that unique aspect of German education in the spotlight. A Bremen couple who have been trying to get permission to homeschool their two young sons had all their legal arguments rejected. A Bremen superior administrative court (Oberverwaltungsgericht) told Dagmar and Tilman Neubronner (and their two attorneys) that they must send Moritz and Thomas to a normal German school and not teach them at home.
Unlike most European countries, including next-door neighbors Austria and Switzerland, Germany requires that children attend school, and outlaws homeschooling except in rare cases. The Bremen court ruled that the Neubronners had not demonstrated that they qualified for such an exception. This state ruling follows a November 2007 German federal court (Bundesgerichtshof) decision that termed homeschooling a form of parental child abuse! Most would-be German homeschoolers laid low after that, but not the Neubronners. They have become Germany’s most famous (or notorious) Heimschul-Familie, determined to fight the Bremen state law (as in all of Germany’s 15 other Länder) that forbids homeschooling.
Although I originally wrote this blog post in 2009, nothing has changed except the names of the people fighting in German courts to get the right to homeschool their children. It is still against the law in Germany to school your children at home. – HF
In an attempt to avoid the fate of other German homeschooling advocates, namely being thrown in jail, Herr Neubronner now lives in France with his two sons, while his wife holds down the fort in Bremen. Other homeschoolers in Germany have been forced to leave for Austria, Great Britain, or other countries where homeschooling is allowed. But if you thought that foreign residents in Germany are exempt from the compulsory school attendance laws, you would be wrong. Americans and other foreigners living in Germany have also been prosecuted for homeschooling.
One thing that makes the Neubronner case unique is the fact that they have emphasized they do NOT want homeschooling for religious reasons. (Most of the other German cases have been argued on the grounds of religious freedom.) The Neubronners just think homeschooling is a good idea, and they don’t want to send their sons to a German school.
Until recently, most Germans were unaware of the issue of homeschooling. After all, why would you not want to send your child to the generally excellent German schools? But when a 2000 PISA study (released in 2001) revealed that many German schools were weak in math, reading, and science, that embarrassing survey gave homeschooling advocates some good ammunition. Homeschooling became part of the German school-reform debate. But the German mind-set is not very open to the concept of homeschooling. Judges and politicians tend to reflect that attitude. It’s definitely an uphill battle for homeschoolers in Germany.
Many English-language blog and newspaper attacks on the German homeschooling ban like to blame it all on Hitler and the Nazis. While it is true that the Third Reich passed such laws in 1938 (and added criminal penalties), they were only an extension of education laws that have been around since 1871. (Prussia was also the first country in the world to require state certification of teachers, and was offering free, compulsory elementary education as early as the 18th century.) In 1919, the Weimar Republic re-introduced compulsory school attendance (allgemeine Schulpflicht). When the Federal Republic of Germany was created in 1949, the compulsory attendance idea made its way into Article 7 of the Grundgesetz (constitution). In September 2006, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the German ban on homeschooling, in a religious-freedom case that began in 2003. The European court argued that parents can’t use religion to justify homeschooling in Germany. (Under German law, parents can decide whether or not their offspring will receive the religious instruction offered in German schools.)
What about U.S. military families and homeschooling? That appears to be a gray area. For military folks under SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement), most people claim that German law does not apply. However, even the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has not always supported homeschooling. A 1989 directive said children of military families were expected to attend the DoD dependent schools. More recent DoD directives have allowed homeschooling. But anyone living in Germany who does not fall under SOFA is subject to German law.
It used to be that it made a difference in which of Germany’s 16 states you resided. Certain states, including Baden-Württemberg (and its capital Stuttgart, home to U.S. military), used to be lax about enforcing the ban on homeschooling. But when a new minister of education came in, that changed. Now Baden-Württemberg is also going after parents who dare to homeschool their kids — with the same high fines and threats of imprisonment common in Hesse and other states. So German homeschool families like the Neubronners, and non-German homeschoolers as well, have been forced to flee Germany if they insist on educating their children themselves — whether they live in Bremen or Bavaria.
However, we Americans should not forget that many U.S. states also enforced compulsory attendance laws — until a 1972 Supreme Court decision (Wisconsin v. Yoder) cleared the way for homeschooling in the USA.
Also see this GW article: Education: Schools and Universities in the German-speaking Countries
Some related links:
• Homeschooling is verboten in Deutschland (A personal essay.)
• HSLDA.org – Germany (updated articles and info)
• No longer online: Bildungsfreiheit.org – Overview (in German)
• No longer online: Blog on Military Homeschooling in Germany