AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Supreme Court sided Friday with a family accused of not teaching its children anything while waiting to be “raptured,” but failed to answer larger constitutional questions about whether home-schooled students must be properly educated.
The 6-3 decision by the all-Republican court on technical grounds means nothing was decided regarding a showdown between religious liberties and educational requirements in America’s largest conservative state, though it will live on in lower Texas courts.
Texas doesn’t require parents who home-school their children to register with state authorities. While families must meet “basic educational goals” in reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics and citizenship, they don’t have to give standardized testing or otherwise prove student progress is made.
Problems for Laura and Michael McIntyre, who once educated their nine children in an empty office at the family’s motorcycle dealership in El Paso, arose after an uncle told the school district that he never saw the children do much of anything educational. According to court filings, he also overheard of the children tell a cousin “they did not need to do schoolwork because they were going to be raptured,” or blessed by the second coming of Jesus Christ.
The family’s eldest daughter, 17-year-old Tori, ran away from home in 2006 so she could return to school. The El Paso district put her in the ninth grade because officials weren’t sure she could handle higher grade-level work — a claim her parents’ dispute.
Attempting to investigate accusations of non-learning, school district attendance officer Michael Mendoza sought proof the children were being properly educated. That prompted the McIntyres to sue, arguing that their equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment had been violated and that the school district was anti-Christian.
The family said it used a religious curriculum similar to one offered in El Paso’s Christian schools, and noted the uncle invented claims of waiting for the rapture because he was embroiled in a dispute over ownership of the since-defunct motorcycle dealership.
The high court found that 14th Amendment claims were not a question for Texas’ educational code.
“Whether their constitutional rights were violated remains to be decided, but it is a question the courts — not the commissioner — must decide,” Justice John Devine wrote, referring to the state’s education commissioner, Mike Morath.
The lower courts may ask for new briefs detailing each side’s argument, but there’s “a very good chance” that the larger constitutional issues could eventually be settled legally, according to Chad Baruch, an attorney who represents the McIntyres.
“I think my clients would love for there to be some clarification as to the limits on the school district’s power to demand information from home-school families,” Baruch said. “But they recognize that’s down the line.”
Since the case involved alleged educational violations, the justices sent it back to the El Paso Court of Appeals, which can either rule on it or ship it back to the trial court, also located in El Paso.
Friday’s ruling wasn’t a total win for the McIntyres, however. The Texas Supreme Court also agreed with a lower court in that Mendoza didn’t violate federal 14th Amendment protections when he investigated the McIntyres.
Anthony Safi, an attorney for the El Paso school district, said “we’re pleased with the court’s decision dismissing the claims against Mr. Mendoza” but that he was still studying the full extent of it.
Between 2003 and 2012, the number of home-schooled students nationwide jumped by about a third to 1.7 million, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Though there’s no official tally, the Texas Home School Coalition estimates 300,000 students are home-schooled in the state, which would be more than any other.