Homeschool Legal Defense Association
“A country that does not permit home education is not really a free country.”
In a controversial opinion article in Aftonbladet, a prominent Swedish newspaper, Lotta Edholm, one of the leaders of Sweden’s liberal party, has called for a change in the country’s social services law to encourage social workers to take children away from homeschooling families.
Edholm writes in her blog “That the Deputy Minister of Social Affairs, Maria Larsson … should take an initiative to change the social services act so that the social authorities can intervene when children are kept away from school by their parents.” This is the most direct and serious threat to date for homeschooling families in the Nordic country where the climate for homeschooling is literally freezing.
According to Jonas Himmelstrand, president of the beleaguered Swedish Association for Home Education, Lotta Edholm’s view that homeschooling is incompatible with democracy turns freedom upside down.
“Edholm argues that because children have a right to an education, this means that public school is the only valid option,” explained Himmelstrand. “With the knowledge we have today this is pure ignorance. Home education is an effective and perfectly legitimate way for children to learn. Edholm’s argument is totalitarian and breaches fundamental democratic principles. It’s fine for the government to provide schools, but it goes against basic human rights norms to force every child to go to school.”
Himmelstrand insisted that democracy requires respect for parental choice and home education.
“The government is not the parent,” he said. “Unfortunately, in Sweden the line between parents and the state has become strongly blurred. However, many countries have education systems such as England, Canada, the United States and our Nordic neighbors, which show that democracies can and must make room for home education.”
HSLDA Director of International Affairs Michael Donnelly, who has worked closely in support of homeschooling families in countries that are hostile, says that Sweden has taken a dramatic and dark turn for the worse.
“Sweden’s educational policy is becoming increasingly totalitarian,” warned Donnelly. “A country that does not permit home education is not really a free country.”
“I’ve been working with Jonas Himmelstrand and know his case intimately. Jonas is an outstanding civic leader and spokesperson for the homeschool community, not just in Sweden, but globally. I’ve met his teenage daughter and know that he and his wife are doing a superb job of educating their children,” he added.
HSLDA and ADF are supporting the Himmelstrands and other families both in Sweden and in other countries where homeschooling is viewed with hostility. One family particularly in need of support is the Johanssons. In 2009 Dominic Johansson, then 7 years old, was taken from his parents while all three were aboard an airplane about to depart for India, the mother’s home country. The family was leaving Sweden permanently. Authorities cited homeschooling as the reason for taking Dominic.
Swedish social authorities have kept Dominic in foster care for the last 2½ years. Dominic’s parents have not seen him in over a year. Recently, a Swedish court denied the social services’ attempt to terminate the Johansens’ parental rights. HSLDA and ADF have filed a lawsuit with European Court of Human Rights against Sweden over the case.
“HSLDA, along with the Alliance Defense Fund, supports families like the Johanssons and Himmelstrands who choose to homeschool,” said Donnelly. “The right of parents to choose the kind of education their children receive is a fundamental human right recognized in international legal documents including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Somehow Swedish politicians have lost their way and are ignoring these basic human rights. Sweden has joined Germany in repressing educational freedom. It’s important that free people stand up to governments who persecute their own people.”
Homeschooling freedom has been in decline for several years in Sweden. In 2010 the Swedish Parliament changed their basic education law, making it virtually impossible to obtain permission to homeschool. The previously enacted 1985 school law had allowed parents to apply for permission from local authorities where permission was mostly granted. However, the changes made by the Swedish Parliament now require “exceptional circumstances” and also make it possible for parents to be criminally prosecuted if they don’t send their children to school—something that was not possible under the previous law. In an advisory response to the Swedish parliament the Swedish Supreme court pointed out that the term “exceptional circumstances” was not clear. The parliament passed the law anyway.
For the last two years virtually no family has been granted permission to homeschool by local authorities. A number of families have reported, however, that they are receiving increasingly large fines and are being harassed. The Himmelstrand family has been in court for years defending their homeschooling program. Now, the Uppsala City Council has gone to court to seek judicial enforcement of $26,000 in fines against the Himmelstrand family. In a country where individual tax rates are well in excess of 50%, such fines are not only exorbitant but economically debilitating for most families. Himmelstrand says there’s no way a normal family could pay such a fine.
“I don’t make the kind of money to afford such a fine,” he said. “In Sweden, fines are supposed to be proportional to a person’s income. I think that the politicians want to set an example. I am an international critic of Swedish family policy and of Swedish repression of homeschooling. I have spoken in the UN, in Canada and in the European Union on these themes. This seems to be an attempt to force me to leave my country—something that I would prefer not to do, but will do if I have to, in order to protect my family.”
Percy Bratt, the Himmelstrands’ attorney, is a noted constitutional lawyer in Sweden. He believes that the courts and officials have been unnecessarily narrow in homeschool cases.
“It appears to me, as I review the cases and court decisions of homeschoolers in Sweden, that the courts have been extremely dogmatic in their decision-making,” said Bratt. “It does not appear they have even remotely grappled with the facts or research brought by many of the homeschooling families who by all accounts are doing a very good job of educating their children.”
Cecilia Forss, an elected politician in Sweden’s second-largest city of Uppsala where the Himmelstrands live, told Donnelly children should go to school.
“Forss told me that if a school exists for a child, then that child should go to school,” Donnelly recounted. “She was cordial and acknowledged we had differing views, but it was clear to me that she did not believe homeschooling was appropriate for Swedish children.” He added, “I’m very concerned that Sweden is becoming another Germany for homeschoolers.”
Scores of German families have fled that country under pressure from officials who have sought crushing fines, jail sentences, and have even sought to remove children from otherwise functional families just because of home education. Germany’s highest courts have affirmed that country’s treatment of homeschoolers because they believe that homeschooling leads to “parallel societies.” German courts have even held that homeschooling may be considered an abuse of parental rights.
In a dramatic 2010 U.S. immigration case, the Romeike family from Germany was granted political asylum in the United States on the grounds that they were homeschoolers and that Germany persecuted homeschoolers. That family was represented by HSLDA, and the case has been pending on appeal at the federal Board of Immigration Appeals since July 2010. The immigration judge in that case said that Germany’s policy of persecuting homeschoolers was “repellent to everything we believe as Americans.”
Donnelly said that his organization opposes views like those of Edholm in order to prevent them from taking root here in America. Donnelly said that there are already some who have expressed similar ideas in the American legal community.
“In her book What Is Right for Children, Emory University School of Law Professor Martha Albertson-Fineman makes the argument that it is not enough that children have the opportunity to go to public school—they must all go to public school, meaning that homeschooling and private schools should be banned” he said.
“This is one of the reasons why it is important for American homeschoolers to be interested in what happens overseas. By fighting these ideas wherever they occur globally, we can prevent them from gaining traction here,” he continued.
Lack of Support
Roger Kiska is an ADF attorney stationed in Europe who has brought numerous cases before the European Court of Human Rights on family issues, including homeschooling. He says that the European Court of Human Rights has not been particularly supportive of homeschoolers.
“The ECHR is giving aid and comfort to Sweden’s repressive home education policies. But ECHR jurisprudence and Swedish, as well as German, policy on home education is at odds with recognized international legal standards that uphold the right of parents to direct the education of their children,” Kiska said. “The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights documents all recognize that parents of children have a fundamental right to choose what kind of education their children will receive. We are committed to working with HSLDA and others to vindicate this right. We will stand with families like the Johanssons and Himmelstrands until we win.”
Although this aggressive persecution by the Swedish authorities represents a significant threat to homeschooling families in Sweden, Donnelly says there is some reason to have hope.
“The Swedish Court of Appeal has now accepted three different cases to review the refusal to grant permission for homeschooling. Previously Swedish courts have denied all requests for appeal for those who had been denied permission by the local authority homeschool,” he said.
“However, until the court acts the situation remains dire for families like the Himmelstrands, Sandbergs, Angerstigs, Johanssons and others who are being persecuted by authorities over their decision to homeschool their children,” he said.