September/October 2011 issue of Liberty - A Magazine of Religious Freedom
While some have decided to stay and fight, other homeschooling families in Sweden are emigrating after losing a years-long battle with the government over the right to educate at home. Last summer Parliament passed what it calls "The New Education Act—for Knowledge, Choice, and Security." The 1,500 pages will bring vast changes to the educational system, but "choice" is certainly not among them.
For starters, the statute will lead to a crackdown on so-called independent schools, which will soon be forced to teach the same government curricula as regular state schools. Two pages of the new law, adding a new "exceptional circumstances" provision, mean the Nordic kingdom will also have a virtual ban on homeschooling starting July 1, 2011. But it won't be easy to implement: the estimated 50 to 100 families are refusing to give in.
Exodus From Sweden
The Grüninger family—originally from Germany, where a Nazi-era law against homeschooling is still in force—moved to Sweden under the impression that home education was legal. They tried the local government school first, anyway. But it was a disaster. Anti-Christian bigotry was overwhelming. Students constantly harassed the children, making frequent reference to Adolf Hitler, too. "It was terror for us," explained the father, an auto-manufacturing worker.
The oldest daughter, 11 at the time, was forced to endure a "sex education" class so graphic and intense—without so much as parental consent—that she couldn't even speak when she arrived home in tears. She had to describe the "lesson" to her mother in a letter. The mom was shocked. The young girl started bathing obsessively — "wash, wash, shower, shower, wash" — a problem that persists to this day. Bernard Grüninger and his wife spoke with school officials on numerous occasions, to no avail. Instead, teachers lectured them about hugging and kissing their children goodbye when they dropped them off, saying the displays of parental love were inappropriate. So the family finally decided to homeschool.
But it wasn't that simple. Even under the old law, parents seeking to educate their children at home needed a permit from local authorities. The Grüninger family applied, and was denied. They were committed to the idea, however, and so continued to homeschool while appealing the decision. "When we started homeschooling, it was so, so great for us to see how good the children feel and how much they learn," said the father, clearly getting emotional. "It was crazy! Then we saw what a low level [of education] the children have in school."
To retaliate, the local government sent social services to the family's home for an "inspection." The Grüningers suffered incredible anxiety, with the children worrying about police possibly coming to take them away. After two or three weeks, the social services worker decided the family was doing well. But the harassment and intimidation continued. Finally, however, it became a moot point. Parliament stepped in and basically banned home education altogether.
"Because of the new school law, we have to decide — we can't stay in Sweden — we will never, never, never bring the children back to such a school," Bernard explained. "And so, we have to decide—we must look for another possibility." Seeking asylum in the U.S. was one option — after all, another German homeschooling family was granted refugee status because of similar persecution. But eventually the Grüningers decided that wouldn't be the best route, especially since the U.S. government is appealing the judge's asylum order. Now the Grüningers plan to leave for Canada in early March. "Then we can make homeschooling without stress and without other problems," Bernard said, adding that Swedish authorities had "destroyed everything."
Many more families are also planning to move before the new law takes effect, going everywhere from the United Kingdom to New Zealand. And they won't be alone. Other families have already fled, moving to places like the Czech Republic and neighboring Nordic countries, all of which allow homeschooling.
The Hammarnejd family is already gone. After more than two years of successful home education, their municipality became scared of the school inspection authority. It then decided to revoke the family's permit, explained Mischa Hammarnejd, a former chairman of the Swedish Homeschooling Association. "We did not want to confront the politicians head-on with the consequences that follow," he said, citing fines, social service investigations, and at least two instances of families having their children seized. "We didn't want to go the route of fighting and standing up for our rights and being humiliated by the social services . . . so we said, 'Well, we'll move.'" And they did; to Finland, a country where even the constitution makes clear that parents are responsible for the education of their children.
Hammarnejd said Sweden has a long tradition of unchecked government authority, going back to monarchs who presumed to dictate what clothing their subjects could wear. The first public schools, he said, taught children always to obey the regime. "The Swedish population is so used to being told what to do that we've never opposed higher authorities," he explained, adding that it upset him to realize he had never learned about what much of the rest of the Western world takes for granted — the idea of negative rights, or freedom from coercion. "That concept doesn't exist in the Swedish mind."
But Finland is "radically different," Hammarnejd explained. And his kids are doing fantastic there, easily learning twice as much as their peers in government school, maybe more. "It's amazing—totally amazing!" Of course, there was a price to pay: uncertainty, leaving everything behind, and more. "But we're not going to give this up." He's already given up his career and his homeland. And he would do it again, if necessary. Despite initial sadness over being separated from his home, however, Hammarnejd's experience taught him that "home is where the heart is." As for fellow Swedish homeschooling families mulling their options: "Never give in," Hammarnejd offered. "Follow your heart, and do what you know is best for your children."
Hoping for the Best
Other parents, rather than leave their homes immediately, plan to wait and see. "Whether we leave the country or not remains to be seen — that's always been a possibility," admitted Christopher Warren, a homeschooling father of three who authored a detailed report on home education for the Swedish government and runs FreeSweden.net, a Web site focused on defending the rights of Swedish homeschoolers.
"If I am forced to leave Sweden because of this law, I will make 10 times as much noise abroad about Sweden than I am doing currently, as this country has been my home for the last 13 years and my children were raised here." Warren's oldest son, 16, is no longer subject to compulsory schooling in Sweden. But he continues homeschooling and has completed all of the Swedish final exams, proving it can be done.
Escape Turns to Tragedy
Even before the new law, the government brutally targeted a family escaping Sweden in search of educational freedom. In a now-infamous case that prompted a worldwide outcry and condemnation from human-rights organizations in Sweden and abroad, Domenic Johansson, a 7-year-old homeschooler at the time, was seized by armed Swedish police while waiting to take off for India with his parents. The family had clashed with local authorities, who refused to permit home education for no apparent reason.
"They said it's the law, and every child's right. I tried to discuss the matter, but they refused to listen," explained Christer Johansson, the father. After carefully considering their options, the family decided to move to the mother's home country of India — permanently. The regime, however, would not allow it. Domenic has been in state custody since he was abducted from the plane, and is only permitted a short, supervised visit with his parents once every five weeks. [Ed. - this has now been revoked and they are not permitted to see their son at all]
After seizing the boy, social services added to the homeschooling-without-a-permit charge that he had not received all recommended vaccines, and that he had a painless baby-tooth cavity the family was planning to treat in India. The battle rages on as the Alliance Defense Fund, the Home School Legal Defense Association, the Nordic Committee on Human Rights, and others seek justice for the family through the European Court of Human Rights. "Our situation right now is, we are just waiting to get our son back. After that, we will leave at once," Johansson said.
Why the Fuss?
Leading the charge for the new law was the Swedish Education Ministry, presently controlled by the "People's Party," part of the "center-right" ruling coalition. The decision to basically ban homeschooling was "in the interest of the pupils," insisted Education Ministry political adviser Therese Wallqvister, adding that the government curriculum was designed so all children could attend "regardless of their or their parents' religious or philosophical beliefs." If school-age children are not in class, police could get involved, she noted, admitting a degree of uncertainty regarding the consequences for families who defy the new rules. Fines could also be a punishment, she said.
"Sweden has always been very restrictive about homeschooling, and the reason for that is we think every child has a right to a good education," Wallqvister said. She acknowledged, however, that the regime did not have any evidence for the assumption that parents are incapable of providing an excellent education. She pointed to chemistry and biology as subjects that parents were not — as far as the Education Ministry is concerned — able to teach properly.
In addition to the new homeschooling restrictions, Wallqvister explained that all nongovernment-run schools — already financed by the state — will now be forced to adopt the national curriculum. No more praying, no more alternative teaching approaches, and no more options. "Praying is not something you can do objectively," she said, quickly adding that Christianity would still be taught in history lessons — "objectively," of course.
There were many topics Wallqvister could not address: criticism of the legislation by Sweden's high court, alleged conflicts with human-rights treaties, and more. When asked for other contacts in favor of the new law, she listed three government agencies and offices. Nobody she could think of outside government supported the scheme.
Waiting, Hoping, Wondering
Despite the intimidation campaign, many Swedish families plan to stay and fight until the end. "I haven't heard any active homeschoolers saying they're going to stop homeschooling permanently," explained author Jonas Himmelstrand, president of the Swedish Homeschooling Association (ROHUS). The government seriously underestimate the determination of Swedish homeschoolers, he added. "There are basically two reactions: the people who still have permission or have a lot of stamina with the authorities and a lot of trust in themselves — they are still staying and will stay until the autumn and try out the new law and see what possibilities and difficulties the new law has. Those who feel very uncomfortable with the harassment and the intimidation — they will leave."
Himmelstrand said it was clear that municipalities' tactics—fines of more than $30,000 per year in one case, numerous instances of social services investigations — were aimed at "putting fear in people." Of course, some local governments are better than others, but the trend is troubling. The battle, however, is worth fighting, Himmelstrand explained. "We see the success of our homeschooling every day . . . what we see in our children — I mean, they are doing so clearly and completely better than school children are doing, especially socially. . . . Of course, you can't send your kids to school when you see that happening — you can't do that as a parent."
On top of the benefits Himmelstrand and his fellow homeschoolers see, there are serious issues in Swedish society — particularly in the educational system — that are cause for concern. For example, the Swedish national curriculum emphasizes abolishing "traditional gender roles." (Even in government day care — considered a form of school under the new law, with more than 90 percent of children between 18 months and 5 years old already enrolled — a "gender educator" makes the rounds to ensure that children are not absorbing any traditional notions about the sexes.)
Himmelstrand also worries about total political control over all education, saying it could lead to a "nightmare scenario" in which children are taught things based on political whims instead of reality. But the current minister of education is adamant against parents "imposing" their views on children. Despite the fact that most homeschoolers in Sweden are not particularly religious, concern over parents raising their children in their faith has played an important role in the debate. "There's a real fear of parents having influence over their children," Himmelstrand said. And as for the Education Ministry's claims of educational objectivity: "Saying that school can be comprehensive and objective is in itself a philosophical statement," Himmelstrand added, calling the ban on homeschooling "scary" and "dangerous."
The Fight Goes On
One strategy homeschooling families will pursue until the end is legal action. Despite opposition from some parties when the bill was originally adopted, "It is unlikely we will manage to change the law in Parliament," Himmelstrand acknowledged. Justice through Swedish courts is still a possibility too. "What we're getting ready for now is to make sure — and we will have support for this from other organizations — to get one or two cases this autumn to go to the European Court." He also said increased international pressure will be a crucial factor.
The United Nations, a highly regarded institution in Sweden, is opposed to government squashing of homeschooling, Himmelstand noted. Its special rapporteur on human rights blasted Germany in a 2007 report, saying: "Distance learning methods and homeschooling represent valid options . . . bearing in mind that parents have the right to choose the appropriate type of education for their children, as stipulated in article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights." The report also notes that the international body received complaints about threats to the parental rights of homeschoolers, concluding that: "The promotion and development of a system of public, government-funded education should not entail the suppression of forms of education that do not require attendance at a school." So Himmelstrand's assertion that homeschooling is a fundamental human right — even recognized by the U.N., a body largely composed of totalitarian governments — should not be taken lightly.
Of course, if international pressure and legal action fail, there is still the option of going abroad in search of political asylum. Himmelstrand believes it would be too embarrassing for the regime to handle, noting that a parliamentarian his association met with was clearly displeased when he found out that was a very real possibility. "I think Sweden trying to implement a view which is foreign to the rest of the Western world is just not possible in the long run, but it will be a difficult time until then," Himmelstrand said, noting that if the Swedish government finds tough enforcement of the new rules too uncomfortable, they could be “interpreted” in a less authoritarian fashion.
As for those families that plan to wait and see: “Some will emigrate, some will stay and do civil disobedience — continue homeschooling as long as it’s possible while being safe in this country — then they will leave as well,” Himmelstrand said. But he hasn’t lost hope, expressing confidence that the international community will assist, partly because of the precedent it would set if the ban is allowed to stand. “If Sweden abolishes homeschooling — if it actually manages to do that — it’s going to have repercussions,” he said, noting that, though small, Sweden has a disproportionate amount of influence on the world.
Help From Abroad
Swedish homeschooling families do have broad support overseas — especially in America and among the legions of homeschoolers scattered throughout the world. The U.S.-based Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which has some members in Sweden, is one of the heavy hitters coming to bat for the beleaguered Swedes.
“We’re willing to support whatever ROHUS is doing,” said attorney Michael Donnelly, director of international relations for the HSLDA. And not just because of its small Swedish membership. One primary motivation for the organization’s international involvement is “the concern of our [American] members for their persecuted brothers and sisters,” Donnelly explained. Plus, “we can’t let these ideas take root anywhere — they have to be swatted down wherever they may be.”
The organization has been working on the issue in Sweden for years, battling the proposed law in Parliament before it passed, standing up for “kidnapped” homeschooler Domenic Johansson, and more. Next step: litigation. HSLDA is already supporting a number of cases making their way through the Swedish court system. Eventually, it could go on to the European level, especially since Donnelly is not hopeful about homeschoolers’ prospects in Swedish courts. “We hope we’ll be victorious — we’ll certainly do the very best we can, but we don’t have a lot of reasons to be optimistic.”
But even if they fail through the judicial system, it isn’t over. Donnelly said it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that HSLDA could even help the targeted families obtain asylum. A U.S. immigration judge ruled that “the rights being violated here are basic human rights that no country has a right to violate” when granting a persecuted German homeschooling family asylum. (That battle is not finished either, but the initial ruling is encouraging to Swedish families too. And even if that option falls through, all of Sweden’s neighbors and most of the world’s governments allow homeschooling.)
“Parents in Sweden have to make a decision — do they want to live in Sweden and homeschool [in defiance of the ban], or are they going to have to leave Sweden?”
“It’s incredible that a country that calls itself a free Western country would go in this direction of repressing educational freedom,” says Donnelly. “Educational freedom is a fundamental precondition to a free, democratic, pluralist society,” He concluded, noting that while Sweden has adopted a “narrow-minded authoritarian view,” the global trend has been toward more liberty in education.
The future of educational freedom doesn’t look bright for Sweden. Of course, the battle is not over yet. It probably won’t be for many years. But what is certain is that Swedish homeschoolers fought valiantly for their rights. And they don’t plan to give them up, even if it means leaving behind their homes, jobs, friends, country, and past lives.
But despite the gloom, there may be something of a brighter side, too. Swedish homeschoolers and even media commentators hope the revocation of a human right by Parliament could serve as a catalyst for limiting government — rather than the people — through law. As of now, Sweden doesn’t have what most countries would consider a real constitution. With the added scrutiny given to the regime’s virtually unlimited powers, however, that could change. Whether something good will come out of the tragedy remains to be seen. But it certainly isn’t out of the question.
Alex Newman is an American journalist and consultant currently based in Europe.