Two seasons make the legal staff at the Home School Legal Defense Association shudder. Every home schooler knows about the one that starts near Labor Day, when truant officers across America come back from summer vacation and start knocking on doors. The "contact calls" pour in from mid-August to early October, stretching HSLDA's lawyers and legal assistants to the limit every year.
There is a second "busy season" for the legal staff that many home schoolers never even notice. That season begins in January, when most state legislatures go to work. Mark Twain once said, "No man's life, liberty, or property is safe when the Legislature is in session," and few people have more reason to agree than the home schoolers of America.
|by Scott W. Somerville, Esq.|
As Staff Attorney at the Home School Legal Defense Association, Scott has successfully handled scores of legal contacts on behalf of families across the nation. Scott also serves as the Executive Director for the Center for Original Intent of the Constitution. He and his wife, Marcia, have graduated their two oldest children, and teach the other four at home in Derwood, Maryland.|
That is why each January is such a challenge for the lawyers and legal assistants at HSLDA. We comb through hundreds and hundreds of pieces of proposed legislation, looking for changes that would hurt-or help-our families. Each dangerous bill presents its own unique challenges, and even a good bill can turn bad in a single afternoon. Time is truly of the essence when the legislature is in session, so HSLDA increasingly relies on our web page and "e-lert" system to alert families at a moment's notice.
It is impossible, even in a feature article, to cover all the important legislation that has already surfaced by the time this issue goes to press, so let us just examine some typical examples of state legislation. We'll look at Mississippi, where home schoolers in a "safe state" suddenly found themselves under assault. Then we'll follow the twisted fate of Virginia's Scholarship Tax Credit bill, which "morphed" from an excellent school choice bill into an all-out assault on private education.
The teachers' union depends on highly paid, highly trained lobbyists who prowl the state capitols clutching their cell phones. Home schoolers, by contrast, are a far-flung network of unpaid patriots linked together by the web. HSLDA's website, "e-lert" system, and legislative toolbox give ordinary citizens the muscle they need to take on the teachers' union-and win! The precursors to this high tech system were the mailing lists, telephone trees, and fax networks belonging to HSLDA, state organizations, and local support groups.
Crude 20th century tools: Fax, phone, and mail
Let's take a jump back in time to a battle waged without the benefit of an e-lert system. The fast pace and urgency of this legislative event motivated home schoolers to become even more organized.
Veteran home schoolers remember the "Battle of H.R. 6," that began on Valentine's Day, 1994. Bill Clinton was president, and Democrats controlled the House and Senate. Representative George Miller, of California, added a one-paragraph amendment to House Resolution 6-a bill that was already more than a thousand pages long. That one paragraph would require subject-specific certification for every teacher "under the jurisdiction of" local school districts. Representative Dick Armey (then a fairly obscure Republican congressman from Texas, now the third highest man in the House of Representatives) asked Miller to change his amendment to make sure it didn't affect home schoolers. After all, home schoolers in many states are unquestionably "under the jurisdiction of" their local district. When Miller refused to change his language, and Armey's home school friendly amendment failed on a straight party-line vote, the battle of H.R. 6 was on!
Mike Farris activated the home school "fax network," sending the word to home school leaders in every state. Telephone trees across America sprang to life as the word spread. We had barely enough time to print and mail out information to our members, and home schooled teens from several counties volunteered to help us stuff tens of thousands of letters. Christian and conservative talk radio shows, including Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family, picked up the alarm and urged citizens to call Congress to stop H.R. 6. Within eight days, home schoolers mobilized somewhere between one and three million letters, faxes, and telephone calls. The Capitol Hill switchboards overloaded first, but soon, even the main telephone company switchboards in the District of Columbia buckled under the unprecedented load. When it finally came to a vote, the Miller amendment lost by a vote of 434-1. In the end, Representative Miller was the only person still willing to vote for his teacher certification proposal.
We cannot claim the credit for this amazing outcome. From a human perspective, there was no way a handful of home schoolers could have stopped legislation like H.R. 6, but God has a way of doing things that no human could have anticipated. In the seven years since H.R. 6, however, HSLDA has constantly sought to improve our readiness for the next threat, whether it comes from Washington or your state capitol. Let's take a look at what has changed since 1994.
From snail mail to e-mail
Old-fashioned letters are hopelessly slow during a legislative emergency. In 1994, it took us several days just to print and stuff the tens of thousands of letters to our members, and several more days for those letters to reach their destination. Now, in 2001, we can pump out an "e-lert" to every online member in an affected state in a matter of hours.
During H.R. 6, many HSLDA members took our letter, copied it, and passed it out to all their friends and relatives over the next few days. With an e-lert, families can still print the information and pass it out by hand, but they can also bounce electronic information out to everyone on their e-mail list in a matter of seconds.
From telephone trees to web pages
Children play a game called "Telephone" in which one person whispers a message down a line of players. It is funny at a birthday party. It is not funny when your freedom is on the line! The Internet makes it possible to put accurate information up in one immediately accessible location, and then change that information minute-by-minute as the situation changes. And, as we shall see, with legislation, the situation really can change in a minute!
Mississippi: Sudden perils in a "safe" state
Mississippi law has long been favorable for home schoolers, but that freedom was suddenly at risk when legislators introduced four bills specifically designed to regulate home schooling and another that would raise the compulsory attendance age to 18. House Bill 299 would require parents to include in the certificate of enrollment "a description of the instructional program for each subject being taught to the child during that school year and the child's grade level in the home instruction program." House Bill 711 would require parents to include "a copy of the instructional program for each subject" in the certificate of enrollment. House Bill 60 would require home school students to participate in the statewide testing program along with public school students. House Bill 302 would force home schoolers to file their certificate of enrollment several weeks earlier each year.
HSLDA Attorney Dewitt Black promptly drafted an e-lert to notify home schoolers in Mississippi of these alarming bills. Hundreds of e-mails flashed across the Internet to our member families, who immediately began to call and write their legislators to oppose this unprecedented assault on educational freedom in Mississippi.
What happened to these bills? We can't tell you in this issue of the Court Report. As this issue goes to press, home schoolers are still calling the Mississippi Legislature about these bills. Newsletters and snail mail simply cannot move fast enough to give you up-to-the-minute information. But you can find out the current status of each bill just by logging on to www.hslda.org. Go ahead. Try it now!
Tax credits in Virginia: A good bill goes bad
HSLDA supports school choice with no strings attached. An example of this is a scholarship tax credit, which allows taxpayers to donate their own money to a private scholarship fund and then take a tax credit for that donation.
In January, Virginia Delegate Jay Katzen submitted a scholarship tax credit as House Bill 1961. This measure would allow each Virginia taxpayer to claim a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations of up to $500 to private organizations that grant K-12 scholarships. Under the terms of the bill, a child could receive a scholarship of up to $3500 to attend a private school, or $550 if the child was educated at home.
HSLDA attorney Scott Woodruff sent out one e-lert after another to our Virginia members to help them understand the bill and explain what they could do to get it passed. On Monday, January 22, 2001, the bill squeaked through the House Finance Committee by a single vote. Phone calls and e-mails poured into the legislature as families across Virginia urged their delegates to vote for H.B.1961 when it reached the floor on Friday, January 26.
When Friday came, however, the vote was postponed until after the weekend. Once again, HSLDA unleashed thousands of e-mails to member families all across Virginia, urging them to keep the pressure on until their delegate took a position either for or against the bill. This time, the e-mails contained a link to HSLDA's online "legislative toolbox," with which a person can enter their zip code, find their legislators, and e-mail a message instantly.
When the bill came to the floor on Monday, one delegate offered a "poison pill" amendment that would force each scholarship recipient to take the tests required for Virginia public school students. This measure would have forced private and home schools to teach public school curriculum in order for their students to pass Virginia's public school test and qualify for the scholarships. The amendment passed by a vote of 54-43.
Now, the true power of the Internet showed itself. In the old days, families would have continued to call and write, urging their delegate to vote for H.B.1961. With the e-lert system, the entire Virginia home school community was able to switch instantly from enthusiastic support to uncompromising opposition to the poisoned bill.
On January 31, bill sponsor Jay Katzen withdrew H.B. 1961, rather than endanger the freedom of the state's private and home schools. HSLDA e-mailed a list of those delegates who voted against school choice to our Virginia members to give them an opportunity to help their elected representatives understand why school choice is right for Virginia.
Preserving the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity
Seventy thousand families in 50 states have joined together in HSLDA to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to preserve the right to do what is best for our own children in our own homes. That right is at risk each legislative season. HSLDA is committed to get you the information you need to stand up for liberty. We encourage you to log on to www.hslda.org and join us on the front lines of freedom!