Each year, the Home School Legal Defense Association monitors legislation at the state level all across the country. Our reason is threefold. First, we want to avert legislation harmful to homeschool freedom and family rights. Second, we want to support positive legislation that will make the country a better place for homeschoolers. And lastly, we track state legislation so we can keep abreast of national trends.
If we can anticipate the types of legislative battles homeschoolers will be fighting in the future, we can be better prepared when they arrive. The following is a "big picture" report on the legislation HSLDA has tracked this past year. This report is an overview, and does not mention every bill which HSLDA has investigated. Most state legislative sessions are over for 2002, but a few of these bills are still pending.
In pursuit of freedom|
In most cases, homeschoolers seem to be on the defensive end of legislative battles. But this year, homeschoolers in New York and Pennsylvania played offense.
Over the past 17 years, HSLDA has assisted and represented thousands of HSLDA member families in New York and Pennsylvania. Both states impose some of the country's most onerous requirements on homeschoolers, and we have seen firsthand the abuse homeschooling families have received from school districts misapplying the present law.
New York Senate Bill 4767, which passed the Senate Education Committee unanimously, failed to get a full Senate vote. This bill would have not only relieved parents and public school officials of time-consuming administrative tasks, but also significantly increased the freedom of home educators in New York to direct the education of their children. S.B. 4767's passage would have changed New York from a state with the most restrictive homeschool law in the nation, to a state with one of the most favorable laws for homeschoolers.
On April 10, 2002, the state homeschool organization, Loving Education at Home (LEAH), held a Rally and Lobby Day on the steps of the New York State Capitol in Albany to promote this measure. Homeschoolers turned out in force for this event, and visited their senators and assemblymen, voicing their support for the bill.
Legislative strategists anticipated that passage of a new homeschool law would be a battle that lasts longer than a single year. Much progress has been made this year, including sponsorship in the Assembly by the Deputy Majority Whip, Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg. Additionally, because of their grassroots lobbying efforts, home educators made themselves known to legislators as constituents whose opinions are worthy of consideration. With the groundwork already laid, New York home educators expect passage of the legislation in the upcoming session.
An event in Pennsylvania on June 13 drew more than 700 homeschoolers to the House Education Committee's public hearing on House Bill 2560. This bill would make significant improvements in the current law and is the result of over two years of consultation and input from homeschool leaders across Pennsylvania.
While many home educators in Pennsylvania support this bill, it is unlikely that employees of the state education system echo that sentiment. Interestingly, however, one school superintendent who testified at the hearing admitted that, even though she thought the bill was a bad idea, it would make her job much easier. She further admitted that in her estimation, 99% of homeschool parents are conscientious and dedicated to their children's education, while the percentage of dedicated public school parents was "probably not that high." In addition, she said that no homeschooling family in her experience had ever submitted a deficient portfolio.
At press time, this legislation continues to move through the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Home educators have high expectations of final passage this year.
Research demonstrates that there is no positive correlation between state regulation of homeschools and the performance of homeschool students. It is time for states to recognize this success and to amend the laws accordingly.
HSLDA's primary concern with state legislation is any proposed change to the state's homeschooling law. In most cases, such changes are instigated by those who wish to further regulate homeschoolers, but this year saw some notable exceptions.
Both New York and Pennsylvania introduced legislation to curb the enormous burden their homeschooling laws currently place on families. Pennsylvania's bill is still pending as this newsletter goes to press. New York's bill is dead. Even if neither measure passes this year, we believe they denote an encouraging trend for homeschooling legislation in America. (See sidebar.)
On the negative side, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee introduced bills to further regulate homeschoolers or change their legal status in some dangerous way. Fortunately, all have been defeated or have fallen to the wayside.
In Maine, the Commissioner of Education pushed through several new rules. One section of the changed rules was a step forward. Another significantly increases the likelihood a family could be charged with truancy. HSLDA, together with other state homeschool organizations are developing legislation to create an option that would not be subject to the regulatory process.
In Vermont, a good bill that would have affirmed the lawfulness of homeschooling during administrative processing failed to pass.
In the "bizarre" category, another Kentucky measure proposed to require any homeschooling family receiving state welfare to have their children take standardized achievement tests. Achievement testing is not currently required of any Kentucky homeschoolers, and this legislation quickly died.
Public school programs
Legislation in Alaska sought to authorize the state department of education to create regulations regarding state-approved correspondence programs. It could have been interpreted to prohibit parents participating in such programs from using religious curriculum; thus, we were thankful this bill failed.
To the south, Washington school districts were not informing parents about all their legal options under state law, hoping to persuade them to use the state-funded "alternative education program" option. HSLDA supported a bill that would have required districts to advise parents who inquire about educational alternatives of the difference between "home-based instruction" and "alternative education" programs. It failed to pass before the legislature adjourned.
Increasing the compulsory attendance age in a state is also an issue of great concern for us. Sadly, every year many states seek to increase the time children are required to spend in school, while none try to reduce it. HSLDA believes that an increase in compulsory attendance fundamentally limits parents' options. For homeschoolers, increased compulsory attendance means more time they are required to submit to the state's often burdensome homeschooling law.
Alaska lowered its compulsory attendance age from age 7 to age 6. California, New York, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia all introduced legislation to lower the age at which children are required to attend school. Washington, DC's proposal may be the youngest compulsory attendance age in the history of mankind, requiring in some cases, children as young as 2 years and 9 months to attend school. Bills introduced in Hawaii, Illinois, Mississippi, and Washington (state) did not pass.
West Virginia passed a bill requiring all counties to offer "early childhood education" to children who are age 4 by September 1. Although the program is voluntary, parents cannot remove a child from the program unless they formally enroll him in a home or private school.
On the other end of the compulsory attendance spectrum, a Kentucky proposal to raise school attendance age from 16 to 18 years old failed. Missouri nearly passed a bill to allow metropolitan school districts the option of raising compulsory attendance to 18 years old if they chose. And several New York bills that would have raised compulsory attendance age for high schoolers are now dead.
While HSLDA does not generally object to school districts' efforts to eliminate truancy, truancy legislation often gives districts unlimited power to arbitrarily deny families the right to homeschool. Homeschoolers are not truants. State law (and potential law) should recognize that.
A Colorado bill that would have prohibited a child who is habitually truant from participating in a homeschool program unless permitted by the child's school district was defeated.
New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Utah also introduced truancy laws that were potentially problematic to homeschoolers. Tennessee's H.B. 2650 passed. All others were defeated.
Sometimes legislation, while not addressing home education specifically, creates a de facto discrimination problem for homeschooled graduates without state accredited diplomas. The most egregious in this category came this year from South Carolina. Homeschoolers in the state defeated a bill that would have kept students with unaccredited diplomas from being admitted to a state college, working for a state agency, or receiving any state license.
A New York bill to implement similar "school-to-work" type legislation is now dead. In Pennsylvania, a pending bill would implement a program to allow 11th and 12th graders to take courses at a local college. The bill all but excludes homeschoolers who do not have approval from the local public school superintendent and a high school guidance counselor.
A bill to create a specific "GED track" for homeschooled graduates in Oklahoma met a quick defeat, as did a Virginia bill which would have made any student without a Virginia state-accredited diploma take special testing to enter a state college.
Social services/Child welfare reform
In our almost-20-years' experience assisting parents who are falsely accused of child abuse, we have seen many ways in which laws governing state social services agencies and child welfare could be improved. We believe that agencies and individuals who investigate suspected child abuse and neglect are generally given too much arbitrary power under state law. It is vital that the rights of the innocent are protected in these situations and that limits are placed on the power of government officials.
Utah led the pack on this issue, passing a bill that substantially improves the law governing the Division of Child and Family Services. It provides important new protections for families who are falsely accused of abuse.
Arizona introduced two small changes to improve current social services law.
One would have required Child Protective Services workers to report evidence of crimes to law enforcement in writing within 24 hours. The other requires CPS to provide a written notification to parents after a child abuse investigation has been determined to be unfounded. The former failed to pass; the latter passed, but was amended so heavily, it will not be as effective as we had originally hoped.
A Georgia bill would have required that a law enforcement officer conduct the initial investigation of alleged child abuse. HSLDA believed this would have been a favorable change since law enforcement officers are trained to recognize the constitutional rights of individuals, yet this bill failed as well.
New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania introduced legislation that would significantly improve child welfare law in those states. All are pending or dead at the time of this printing.
Massachusetts and Washington introduced bills (now dead or dying) that HSLDA viewed as problematic in that they gave more authority to social services. A Missouri bill that died would have prohibited corporal punishment in schools, leaving the definition of "school" vague enough to include non-public schools.
One of the worst child welfare bills we have seen in a long time was Florida's proposed Learning Gateway program (dubiously nicknamed the Government Nanny Bill). The bill, which would have created a screening program to identify children in need of government services, was narrowly defeated after an exhausting battle. (See "It's never over until it's over" on at www.hslda.org/courtreport.)
Mandatory abuse reporting (clergy)
We expect every state to file at least one bill in response to the recent negative publicity concerning the Roman Catholic Church. However, HSLDA believes no major change in the law is needed. While true child abusers should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, making pastors, Sunday school teachers, and other religious workers mandatory abuse reporters is a problematic way to handle the situation. Often, what one person considers "abuse," another would consider corporal punishment. Forcing pastors and lay-people to make these decisions on pain of imprisonment is a bad idea that will hurt many innocent families.
Massachusetts became the first state to react to this issue by passing a mandatory abuse reporting law this year. Another bill in Ohio is still pending, while a South Carolina bill failed to pass in this session. We expect to see many more of these measures in the next few years and will continue to monitor them for ways they can be improved.
Under our broad goal of protecting the rights of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their children fall the issues pertaining to medical freedom. Legislation introduced concerning parents' rights to make medical decisions was sporadic during the 2002 legislative season and nothing significant passed.
On the positive side, an Alabama bill sought to ensure that parents had access to all their children's medical records. A Missouri bill would have allowed parents more freedom to object to immunizations.
On the negative side, California saw legislation introduced that would have allowed health care personnel to require parents to "qualify" before they take their newborn home (the bill died without being voted on). A Wyoming bill attempted to repeal the right of parents to object to immunizations for their children on religious grounds.
Although Louisiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina all introduced education tax credits of one kind or another, none of them have passed. We hope that this year's pro-voucher decision from the U.S. Supreme Court (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris) will influence legislators to be more open to unique ways to help families pay for private education. While HSLDA believes that government voucher programs are dangerous to the freedom of families who choose private education, we think that tuition tax credits are a workable alternative allowing parents to determine how and where their education dollars are spent.
The issue of grandparents (or other family members) gaining visitation rights to children has become a hot one in recent years. While it is extremely regrettable when families break up, parents must maintain the right to decide with whom their children will associate. Toward this end, Alabama introduced a bill that would strengthen parents' rights in this regard, but it failed to pass. A Utah bill that started out the same way was watered down with amendments before it passed.
Both North and South Carolina introduced legislation to support a grandparent's right for visitation, but neither passed. A failed Washington bill would have permitted any person, even someone not related to a child by blood or marriage, to have visitation rights with the child under certain conditions.
Parental rights acts
Both New York and South Carolina introduced bills to protect the constitutional right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children. Both failed to move forward.
Driver's license issues
Both Pennsylvania and New York introduced bills that would by default make it extremely difficult for homeschooled high school students to get a driver's license. Neither bill has moved forward. South Carolina passed legislation expanding the driver's education requirement for minor children. HSLDA attempted unsuccessfully to have language inserted in this bill that would allow homeschooling parents to provide the required driver's education.
Ohio passed a bill that would have possibly allowed school district superintendents a certain amount of approval authority over homeschoolers seeking work permits.
With help from homeschoolers in that state, we were able to have the offending language removed from the bill.
A unique bill from South Carolina allows parents to homeschool foster children. The bill passed as part of homeschool "awareness week" legislation. We hope to see similar bills in other states in the coming years.
Looking back on the 2002 legislative session, we have a lot to be thankful for. No legislation extremely dangerous to homeschoolers passed. To find a reason for this, we need look no further that the vigilance of homeschooling families across America. And while much legislation HSLDA supported did not pass, the fact that such legislation was introduced and considered may set the stage for better, more homeschool friendly law in the future.