New York Tightens Up
This year has marked an increased enforcement of the state department of education guidelines in New York. HSLDA, as a result, has counseled dozens and dozens of families on how they should deal with their local school district. Several school districts, however, have attempted to enforce various “approval” procedures on homeschoolers including home visits, testing only at the public schools, and various curriculum restrictions. Even after being notified of the unconstitutionality of their demands, these school districts have insisted on enforcing their local procedures.
For example, the Standish family of Oswego, members of HSLDA, met with the local superintendent, showed him their textbooks, qualifications, and generally assured him that they were meeting all the requirements of the compulsory attendance law. The superintendent found everything to be satisfactory except he wanted the family to submit to periodic home visits. The family kindly refused since it was not required by law. The school district then informed the social service department that the Standish family was not “approved” and that the children were truant. The social service department then brought charges of child neglect against the family.
In another situation, the French family in Crown Point began homeschooling for their fourth year. However, the superintendent arbitrarily decided he would not let the family homeschool this year. He wrote the family a letter of denial even though the mother was certified, the children scored high on standardized tests the last three years, and their curriculum met all the state requirements. He then turned the family over to the child protection agency for investigation. Attorney Klicka called the child protection agency and persuaded them that they did not need to be involved. Then he sent Mr. French a five-page letter defending the family’s constitutional rights and warning the superintendent of his personal liability in knowingly discriminating against the French family. That night the local school board was going to decide when to bring charges against the family so Klicka had Mr. French distribute copies of the letter to all the board members and the superintendent. The board went into executive session and came out praising the Frenches’ homeschool and promising their program would be approved right away. The Frenches have had no problem since.
In order to prevent similar threats and charges against HSLDA members, HSLDA filed a civil rights complaint in federal court against several school districts who were attempting to enforce unconstitutional requirements (Blackwelder v. Safnauer, No. 86-CV1208, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York). HSLDA is challenging the compulsory attendance statute as unconstitutionally void for vagueness because no definition exists for the requirement of “substantially equivalent instruction” and “competent instructors.” New York case law has interpreted the statute as giving unbridled discretion to the superintendent to approve or disapprove a family's choice to homeschool their children which is a violation of homeschoolers’ right to due process. This has allowed local superintendents to control homeschoolers any way they see fit.
HSLDA is also arguing that requiring the family to consent to warrantless home visits is a violation of their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights which guarantee the right to privacy and to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. See the Kindstedt case from Rhode Island, detailed in this issue. Furthermore, HSLDA is challenging § 3204 because it allows a government agent (school official) with a financial stake in the outcome to decide whether a family may exercise their constitutional right to teach their own children. This is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause which demands that only a neutral decision maker can preside over whether rights can be exercised.