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German families look to US for asylum

A decision allowing home-schoolers to stay could attract other families.

The German government's position is that mandatory school attendance ensures a high standard of learning for all children, said Karl-Matthias Klause, a spokesman with the German embassy in Washington, D.C. Parents in Germany can choose between public and private schools, as long as the school is recognized by the government. The European Court for Human Rights ruled in 2006 that the law is not a human rights violation.

Home-schooling isn’t illegal, Klause said, as long as children attend a state-recognized school during standard school hours. Parents are free to home-school their children in the afternoon and on weekends, he said.

Germany's strict laws requiring all children to attend state-registered schools help ensure each child learns to tolerate and understand others, said Kirsten Verclas of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington, D.C.

“During Nazism, there was racism to the extreme,” Verclas said. “The education system and other state systems prevent fringe opinions out there that might negatively affect our state.”

In the U.S., Verclas said, people believe that individual rights should trump the state’s rights. In Germany, she said, it’s the other way around.

Home-schooling is legal in every state in the U.S., but the practice is sometimes challenged. A California judge in 2008 ruled home-schooling to be illegal there. His decision was later reversed. A 2008 federal report estimated that there are 1.5 million home-schoolers in the U.S., and their numbers are growing. Some states require home-schoolers to take standardized tests and receive home visits from state officials, but others don’t regulate home-schooling at all.

For German home-schoolers, the U.S. is a safe haven. The Romeikes joined another German family that was already home schooling in Tennessee. Other families hope to move to the U.S., if the Romeikes' asylum stands. Donnelly said they fear that the German government will extradite them and jail them if they move to another European Union country.

German officials terrorize families that home-school, said Klaus Landahl. He and his wife received a letter from government officials who threatened to imprison them if they didn’t send their kids to school, he said.

Landahl was visiting England in late 2007 to find a new home for his family when his wife received a letter saying that the state had formally taken custody of the Landahl children. His wife, Kathrin, stuffed clothes into a few bags and fled her home with the children. Two days later, she and the children were on a ferry bound for England.

“The government destroys lives and whole families,” Landahl says.

England is not part of an EU agreement that simplifies extradition, Landahl said. Otherwise, he would have looked across the Atlantic Ocean to find safety for his family.

Many German home-schoolers will live in fear until the government changes its policies, said Joerg Grosseluemern, a leader in the fight to legalize the practice.

“We must convince political leaders that home schooling is an option that helps not only the children, but which also is an enrichment for the educational system as a whole,” he said. “But it is very difficult to find political leaders who are willing to talk with us.”