Across the States
Homeschooling continues to be a major issue in many states. Below is a summary of some recent developments in several states.
In New York, Michael Farris, president of HSLDA, has been handling a federal civil rights action which he filed on behalf of several HSLDA members (Blackwelder, et al., v. Safnauer, et al., No. 86-CV1208, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York). Farris contends primarily that the statute is void for vagueness because the term equivalent instruction is not defined by the legislature. While the suit has been pending, the school districts have continued to harass four of the homeschool families in the Blackwelder suit by notifying the Department of Social Services. Social services, as a result, made some surprise visits to several of the families. Farris, however, called the social services personnel and the opposing attorneys and was able to put a stop to this harassment. Subsequently, all the complaints against the families by social services were declared “unfounded.” The federal judge will be making a ruling concerning HSLDA’s motion for summary judgment sometime this summer.
On May 19, the Standish family of Oswego were in trial for educational neglect. HSLDA secured attorney Dave Rollinson of Syracuse to represent the family. Rollinson used the same arguments asserted in Blackwelder to defend the Standish family. No decision has been rendered at the time of this printing.
Of course, testing has also become an area of dispute in New York at this time in the school year. The HSLDA legal staff has counseled over 50 families as to how to handle various testing requirements by their local school boards. HSLDA attorneys have written many letters to superintendents concerning the PEP tests, explaining that such tests are not required by law. HSLDA cites a written opinion by Seth Rockmuller of the New York Department of Education’s legal office. Rockmuller clearly states that local school districts have no authority to require homeschooled children to take PEP tests.
As far as other forms of nationally recognized achievement tests, HSLDA has recommended that families negotiate with their school districts and assert their right as parents to choose their test, administer their test, and choose the testing location (usually the home, where the child can perform in familiar surroundings).
In Pennsylvania, many homeschoolers are being pressured constantly by their local superintendents. As a result, HSLDA filed a federal civil rights action against approximately 11 different school districts that are enforcing unconstitutional restrictions on homeschoolers (Jeffery, et al., v. O'Donnell, et al., No. CV-86-1560, United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania). Michael Farris and Michael Smith have made several appearances on behalf of the homeschoolers before the federal judge. Farris is in the process of making a motion for summary judgment, asking the judge to rule that the Pennsylvania compulsory attendance law is vague on its face and therefore unconstitutional.
Like New York, testing has been an issue of contention in Pennsylvania. Since there are no statutory requirements to test, the local school district is hard pressed to find authority to support their local testing procedures. The HSLDA legal staff has advised many families as to what conditions they should agree to concerning testing. Basically, the family should reserve their right to choose the test, location, and administration of the test. HSLDA has been successful in helping dozens of families to avoid the TELLS test.
The HSLDA legal staff has also helped dozens of families to amend and rewrite the forms and policies of their school district in order to avoid home visits, psychological testing, overly restrictive qualifications for the parents, and severe monitoring procedures.
HSLDA is planning on sending a mailing this summer to its members in Pennsylvania in order to present various options homeschoolers could take. One option is to possibly establish themselves as a school operated“by bona fide church or other religious body” as allowed under HB 2174, which was recently passed into law. This statute guarantees that “it is the policy of the Commonwealth to preserve the primary right and the obligation of the parents . . . to choose the education and training for such child. Nothing contained in this act shall empower the Commonwealth . . . to approve the course content, faculty, staff or disciplinary requirements of any religious school referred to in this section without the consent of this school.” More on this later.
In Wisconsin, the state department of public instruction financed a $16,000 study of homeschooling. The report, entitled “Home Instruction in Wisconsin,” recommended that the present homeschool law be changed to require certified teachers, inspections of homeschools, testing, and a form of curriculum approval. Chris Klicka and Michael Smith both spoke recently at separate conferences in Wisconsin, exposing the many inaccuracies of the report.
The report was primarily undocumented and based on interviews with local superintendents who were clearly biased against homeschools. Neither author of the report has a law degree or education degree which renders their legal and educational analysis suspect. Much of their research was based on an outdated law review article from 1982 (18 states have changed their laws in favor of homeschooling since that time). In addition, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards has passed a resolution calling for more restrictive legislation governing homeschooling. New restrictive legislation is expected to be introduced at the end of this summer. (Under present law, homeschoolers need only submit an annual notice of intent, provide 875 hours of instruction, and teach six basic subjects.)
In North Carolina, where homeschools can operate freely as private schools, a new bill (HB 837) has been introduced to heavily restrict homeschoolers. The new bill, if passed, would require homeschoolers to have a bachelor's degree to teach their own children. Also, the bill calls for approval by the local board of the curriculum and a formal review of the homeschool twice a year by the board. (Under present law, homeschoolers need only file a notice of intent, keep attendance records, and have their children take a periodic standardized test.)
In Illinois, homeschoolers have been subject to more harassment this year, especially in the Chicago area. The HSLDA legal staff has resolved several situations where local school personnel were overstepping their authority and demanding home visits and the right to approve curriculum. HSLDA firmly reminded them that a homeschool qualified as a private school under Illinois case law and thus they have no authority to demand such compliance.
However, SB 1202 has recently been introduced which would distinguish homeschools from private schools and require homeschools to register with their local school districts. Amendments to the bill also call for a “uniform pupil attendance accounting system” which would require all parents to report to the state concerning their enrollment or transfer of their children into a school. Parents who fail to report where their children attend school would be subject to truancy charges. Many homeschoolers are banding together to oppose this intrusion on parental rights.
In Virginia, homeschoolers seeking religious exemptions pursuant to statute have had mixed results. The law requires that “A school board . . . shall excuse from attendance at school any pupil who, together with his parents, by reason of bona fide religious training or belief, is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school” (§ 22.1-257).
In King George, the Taylor family was able to acquire a religious exemption based on their strong religious convictions which the family submitted to the board in writing. Attorney Klicka also sent a lengthy letter to the board delineating the family’s rights under both the Virginia law and the U.S. Constitution. The family did not even have to appear before the school board in person, since the school board granted them a religious exemption based on what had been submitted in writing.
In Stafford, the Ritchie family was granted a religious exemption this school year with virtually no major confrontations. Similarly, the DiLella family in Culpeper, also a member of HSLDA, was granted a religious exemption.
However, other families with sincere religious convictions have been subject to severe questioning by the local school board and subsequent denials. For example, in Spotsylvania, the Wilkerson family, represented by Chris Klicka, was questioned from 10:00 p.m. until midnight concerning their convictions. During the hearing, the board attempted to pressure and intimidate the Wilkersons’ 7-year-old boy to contradict his parents’ religious convictions. The answers that the attorney let him say were good but not theological enough to the board’s liking. As a result, the family’s religious exemption was denied. The school board justified their harsh treatment of the child by claiming that the law required them to do so since “the pupil, together with his parents” must be conscientiously opposed to attendance at school. HSLDA is working on another avenue to get the family out from under the approval process.
Fairfax County also has been rough on homeschoolers seeking religious exemptions. The Shearer family, another HSLDA family, was recently denied by the school board. Michael Farris represented the family at the board meeting and he is presently contemplating appealing the decision to the courts. Meanwhile, the Vondals and the Duerksen families have submitted their convictions in writing and are awaiting an opportunity for a hearing before the Fairfax school board. In addition, the Welty family in Loudoun County has been waiting for their school board’s decision since September.
In April, Farris and Klicka appealed a religious exemption case out of Prince William and are awaiting oral arguments (Benner v. Commonwealth, No. 0706-86-4, Court of Appeals at Richmond). This case is important in order to clarify the present misapplication of the religious exemption statute. Furthermore, in Monterey, Klicka recently obtained a dismissal of “children in need of services” charges against a family who is homeschooling their children based on their religious convictions.
Although Virginia is one of the few states that has a statutory religious exemption, it is readily apparent that the school officials are doing all they can to prevent families from obtaining the exemption.
In South Dakota, the School Administrators of South Dakota have passed a resolution that may be presented in the legislature. The resolution states that they “support the requirement that all children of compulsory school age attend a school accredited by the South Dakota Division of Education.” South Dakota homeschoolers need to watch their legislature closely.
In West Virginia, HB 2781 was passed on March 14, 1987, and it effectively removes the local school board’s authority to approve homeschools. Basically, the new law only requires that a parent have a high school diploma, submit an annual notice of intent which includes a brief outline of instruction to be given, and an annual standardized test (must achieve the 40th percentile). Although the homeschoolers no longer are subject to the arbitrary approval power of the local school districts, there is one negative aspect of the new law. The parent-teacher must have “formal education at least four years higher than the most academically advanced child . . . or achievement of a score on the National Teachers Examination sufficient for teacher certification in this state.” This, of course, will make it difficult for parents who only have a high school diploma to teach their children after they reach 9th grade.
In Minnesota, HB 432 was passed in May, which allows for homeschools to operate provided they meet certain conditions. The homeschool parent must submit an annual notice of intent, provide instruction in at least nine key subjects for 170 days a year, and submit an annual instructional calendar. Also, the parent must either be certified, have a college degree, be enrolled with an accredited educational program approved by the board, or have children take an annual standardized test (score at least in the 30th percentile) and submit a quarterly report card to the local superintendent. In addition, the homeschooler could be subject to a request by the superintendent to have the family present him with a portfolio of their materials. Without a doubt, this law will cause endless headaches for the parents, school officials, and judges as they try to interpret its requirements.