Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Failed NC bill latest win for growing anti-vax and home-school alliance

Personal choice is at the heart of both movements, which shun government encroachment on parental decision-making

DAVIDSON, N.C. — In the wake of the U.S. measles outbreak earlier this year, vaccination bills are spreading across the country aimed at tightening state mandates regarding highly infectious diseases. Earlier this month lawmakers in California advanced a bill that requires all school children be vaccinated and eliminates all nonmedical waivers, such as for reasons deemed religious or personal. If the measure passes, California will join Mississippi and West Virginia as the only states that do not allow religious exemptions.

A similar bill that would have eliminated religious waivers in North Carolina, however, met intense pushback from parents, including those in the state’s growing home-school community. State senators behind Senate Bill 346, initially proposed by Sen. Jeff Tarte, pulled the bill April 1, less than a month after unveiling it.

“After hearing serious concerns about stricter vaccine and immunization requirements from our constituents and from citizens across the state, we have decided we will not move forward with Senate Bill 346,” they said in a statement. “The vaccine bill is dead.”

That bill — more specifically, the prospect of losing parental control over their children’s vaccinations  could have pushed some North Carolina families out of public schools in order to take advantage of mandate loopholes available to those who educate their children at home.

“If it were the case that this [proposed] vaccine rule did not apply to home schools, I think there are parents that would take their children out of public schools and home school them just to not be forced to give them the vaccines they think are harmful,” said Dixie Holden, a nurse in Sanford, North Carolina.

About 100,000 children are home schooled in the state, according to the North Carolina Department of Administration. The state is considered moderate in its home-school regulation, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association.

“I would say the No. 1 reason that home-schoolers choose to home school is religious. They want to be able to pass their beliefs on to their children unencumbered,” said Spencer Mason, the officer manager for North Carolinians for Home Education.

Others have opted for home schooling out of academic concern. Corey Strombeck, who runs the Blue Ridge Christian Home Educators, says she decided to home school her children after she moved to an area with a 30 percent dropout rate at the public high school. “Most families feel they can educate their child better than the school system because you know how they learn,” she said. “I like being able to teach towards my child’s bent.”

As a nurse and a grandmother of a child who will soon be home schooled, Holden straddles the line between the desire for strong health public policy and personal liberties.

“In North Carolina, all you really have to do is write a letter saying ‘I have a religious reason for not wanting my child vaccinated,’” said Holden, who is a nursing instructor at Central Carolina Community College. “You really don’t have to give the reason for it. You just have to say that you have a religious reason for it, and they don’t really question that.”

‘I think there’s a growing sense in America that it’s the parent’s responsibility to look out for children, not the state. That’s where you run into this brick wall with forced vaccination, forced attendance, forced Common Core, forced whatever.’

Brian Ray

National Home Education Research Institute founder

It was during her years working as a school nurse that she saw parents, she said, “who clearly [did] not have a religious reason for not vaccinating their children” use the state’s exemption as an excuse not to vaccinate them, she said.

“As a medical professional, I don’t believe I could say, ‘No, I don’t want to vaccinate my children against any of these diseases,’ because I’ve seen people with these diseases and how horrible some of them are,” she said. “However, I don’t think it should be legislated which ones I chose not to get.” She explained that she was against immunizations for her granddaughter if a vaccine’s efficacy was questionable, such as for the flu, and against combination shots that would make the cause of potential reactions harder to pinpoint.

Proposals with hard mandates for vaccinations are, she believes, “encroaching on taking the responsibility and rights of the parent away.”

One of her family members refuses to vaccinate her children because she believes the vaccines are harmful to her children.

“She thinks that is her religious exemption,” Holden said, adding that she disagrees. “I’m not sure where all that fits into religion. I would assume that people who are not religious would not want to do harm to their children either, and is that really a religious exemption?”


Opponents of SB 277 protest the measure, which would eliminate vaccination exemptions for schoolchildren in California on the basis of religious or personal beliefs.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Home schooling is fundamentally philosophical, said Brian Ray, the founder of the National Home Education Research Institute. “Who has the authority over a child’s mind and thoughts and education and curriculum? Is it a parent or is it the state?” he asked.

For home-schooling families that philosophy extends to the issue of state-mandated vaccinations, he said. “It’s the same question about what shall go into a child’s body, whether it’s food or whether it’s injected medicine. It’s the same exact issue,” he said.

He has studied the home-school movement for 30 years. “What I see is that each time the state … gets bigger,” he said, “you’re going to have another portion say, ‘Wait a minute. Stop. That’s too much.’”

Personal choice is at the heart of the movement, which has ballooned nationally over the last 40 years, said Joseph Murphy, an education professor and the Frank W. Mayborn chair at Vanderbilt University. “It went from really an activity that was illegal in the early 1970s to one that’s recognized across the board.”

From 1999, when the National Center for Education Statistics began tracking home schooling, to 2012, the estimated number of home-schooled children grew from 850,000 to 1.77 million.

While the number of home-schooled students continues to rise, Murphy said economics puts a natural cap on the “pretty ferocious” growth trend, since only so many families can afford it.

“Almost all the people who have home-schooled have kept one parent — and 98 percent of the time, it’s the mom — at home,” he said. “There’s a heavy cost with that, to keep one person out of the workforce.”

Home schooling is part of a larger movement in education, Murphy said, in which more parents are opting for charter and private schools. “A lot of that sense that the private market and nongovernment market should be legitimate providers, including parents, has really provided a huge wave of support for people who are home schooling,” he added.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics, however, do not point to as a large shift as he suggested. Charter schools accounted for about 6 percent of public schools in 2012, up from about 2 percent of public schools in 2000. And private schools have seen a dip in enrollment in recent years, from educating 12 percent of elementary and high school students in the U.S. in the 1995–96 school year to 10 percent of students in 2011–12.

Still, the national debate over vaccination mandates fits in with a desire for more parental autonomy.

“It comes down to parents and the state deciding what’s best for children,” Ray said. “I think there’s a growing sense in America that it’s the parents’ responsibility to look out for children, not the state. That’s where you run into this brick wall with forced vaccination, forced attendance, forced Common Core, forced whatever. I think the home-school community is a place where they can come to think about this and where they can practice what they believe.”

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