At last, the prayers and efforts of thousands of homeschoolers have been answered. The two-year-old civil rights class action suit, Leeper, et al. v. Arlington Independent School District, et al., No. 17-88761-85, 17th Judicial Court of Tarrant County, Texas, was finally decided in favor of the homeschoolers on April 13, 1987. In a clear and forceful 11-page opinion, Judge Charles Murray delivered a decision which essentially allows homeschools to freely operate as private schools in Texas.
Congratulations to Shelby Sharpe, the lawyer who handled the matter on behalf of all the plaintiffs. Over the past two years, HSLDA lawyers have used the Leeper case as leverage to negotiate approximately 75 settlements for HSLDA members who were threatened or charged by their local school district. HSLDA served as one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The court in the Leeper decision made a finding of fact that there were over 400 HSLDA member families residing in Texas educating their school-aged children in a bona fide manner, using a curriculum consisting of books, workbooks, or other written material designed to meet basic educational goals of reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics, and civics (we now have over 800 member families in Texas). The court concluded that all of our members are to be considered legal private schools in Texas.
In the decision, the court stated that the Texas legislature has not defined the terms “private or parochial school” in the statutes. Additionally, the Texas legislature “has not given the Texas Education Agency or the State Board of Education any authority to define private or parochial school, because such entities only have authority over public schools and public education” (page 3). Furthermore, the court held that article 7, section 1 of the constitution of Texas only authorizes the legislature to establish and maintain public education, not private or parochial education (page 10). Consequently, the court voided the state board of education’s resolution of April 14, 1986, because they had no authority to pass it (page 11). The court added,
A school attendance officer has no authority over the conduct of private or parochial schools. While the school attendance officers do check with private and parochial schools from time to time to determine whether students are in attendance, they never tell those schools the qualifications teachers employed there must meet, the curriculum that must be followed or what kind of testing to do of the students. (Page 8)
The court held that any other interpretation of the compulsory attendance law, i.e., that homeschooling is illegal, would violate the homeschoolers’ rights under 42 USC 1983 of the Federal Civil Rights Act. Judge Murray stated that the prosecutions of the homeschoolers “are contrary to the meaning of the language of Sec. 21.033(a) (1) as both originally enacted and as currently understood by persons of ordinary intelligence.”
Furthermore, the court documents that school-aged children being instructed in their home in a bona fide manner by their parents with a written curriculum consisting of reading, spelling, grammar, math, and a course in good citizenship, has always historically been considered a private school. The court commented that “an unreasonable and arbitrary classification of private and parochial schools in being attempted by the Texas Education Agency.”
In conclusion, homeschools in Texas are now considered private schools. This decision will have impact on several other states where homeschoolers are operating as private schools in order to avoid excessive regulations and certification. Some of these states include California, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, and Maine.
However, the court did indicate that school attendance officers are not prohibited from making reasonable inquiry to determine whether a school-aged child is in attendance in a private or parochial school. The court also indicated that the State is not prohibited from initiating prosecutions under appropriate law if a determination is made that a school-aged child is not in attendance at a private or parochial school as declared by the court. Also, the State may prosecute if the parents of such a child fail to reasonably cooperate with a reasonable inquiry.
What does the above paragraph mean? It means that the state of Texas can still enforce the truancy laws with those homeschool families who are not using a curriculum using books, workbooks, or other written materials designed to meet the basic education goals of reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics, and civics (a good study of citizenship). The judge indicated that the parents must reasonably cooperate with a reasonable inquiry.
Obviously, there is still some room for interpretation. Additionally, the defendants might appeal the case. In the meantime, homeschoolers are encouraged to be prepared to respond to a truancy officer, as it is possible that the next move on the part of the department of education may be to draft regulations regarding how the truancy law will be enforced. Since the judge has given a mandate that the homeschoolers have to be reasonable, it can be anticipated that this kind of contact from the truancy officers will continue. Therefore, be prepared for a possible contact. Please respond in a “reasonable manner,” recognizing that no one is entitled to gain admittance into your home without a warrant, and that truant officers are to make “reasonable inquiries.”
For members, any contact should immediately be referred to our office. Because of the probability of inquiry from the truancy officers, it is suggested that you continue your membership in Home School Legal Defense Association. Should this case be appealed, it could take over a year to achieve final resolution. Additionally, please be reminded that your membership fee not only applies toward our representation of families in Texas, but families all across the nation that are your brothers and sisters in attempting to establish their right to homeschool. We are having tremendous difficulties in the states of Iowa, North Dakota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and South Carolina right now.
Additionally, in those states that have obtained favorable legislation in the last several years, the teacher’s unions are attempting to erode the benefits of the legislation for homeschoolers by adding restrictive amendments. In some cases, attempts are being made to completely reverse the previously passed favorable legislation.
We are encouraged by the Leeper decision, to say the least, but the battle is not over, and we need your continued support both by prayers and your continued membership in our organization to see that this decision in Texas and the rights of homeschoolers in other states are protected.