Crucial Parental Rights Victory in Pennsylvania
HSLDA has recently scored a victory in our federal civil rights action in Pennsylvania. In Jeffery, et al. v. O’Donnell, et al., the defendant school district superintendents had entered a motion in February asking that the court appoint guardians for the children of our member families involved in the case, on the grounds that there was “a conflict . . . inherent between the parents and their children in this case because the religious beliefs of the parents may not be what is best for the children in terms of the children’s right to education” (as Judge Kosik summarized their arguments). Basically, they contended that the religiously motivated homeschooling by the parents was not in the best interest of the children, who had rights of their own to a public education. Michael Farris entered a brief opposing this motion and arguing for the rights of parents to direct the education and religious upbringing of their children, rights which have been firmly established through numerous Supreme Court decisions.
In late September, Judge Kosik, who is hearing the case, entered an order denying the superintendents’ motion for the appointment of guardians for the children. This order is viewed by all three of HSLDA’s attorneys as perhaps the most important decision involving homeschooling to date. The judge agreed with Farris that “Parents have a substantial constitutional right to direct and control the upbringing and development of their minor children,” a right which cannot be overcome without proving abuse or neglect of the children, or “significant governmental interest” which contradicts the plans of the parents. This decision thus secures the right of parents to provide for the education of their children as they see fit, including the specific option of homeschooling, and not only parochial or private schooling, the other options to public schooling which have been defended in previous decisions.
This federal civil rights action continues to progress. Attorneys Michael Farris, Michael Smith, and Chris Klicka have taken depositions (sworn testimony) from the nine superintendents being sued. 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. The hearing on this motion will probably be scheduled within the next two months.
Over fifty HSLDA families have been hassled in Pennsylvania because the state statute on homeschooling requires a “properly qualified private tutor” and leaves each local superintendent free to set his own arbitrary standards and interpret “properly qualified tutor.” In addition, each family’s curriculum is subject to the local superintendent&rsuo;s approval.
Some homeschoolers have sought to establish themselves as a “non-licensed, non-public school” under § 933.3A. These families have often incorporated and they meet all the minimal requirements of a non-licensed private school. No approval is involved. The school only needs to register with the state board of education. However, the state superintendent has refused to recognize homeschools as non-licensed private schools. As a result, attorney John Sparks has appealed several denials by the state superintendent to the state board.
One HSLDA family, the Olecheveskis, are included in Sparks’ appeal to win their right to establish their homeschool as a non-licensed school. However, in late September, the school district brought criminal charges of truancy against the family. HSLDA has hired John Sparks to handle the case. Sparks is trying to get the hearing postponed until the administrative hearing or the federal suit is decided.
In spite of the pending suit, school superintendents are still insisting on imposing unconstitutional restrictions on HSLDA members. Many school districts are threatening families with criminal charges unless they follow a combination of the following: parents must be certified, must use a certified teacher, have children tested in public school, allow school officials to periodically visit the home, subject children to psychological testing, TELLS testing, use public school textbooks, and submit periodic progress reports.
Attorney Chris Klicka has spent many hours counseling families on how to amend restrictive agreements and negotiate with the school district superintendents. In at least fifteen exceptionally hostile situations, several where the family received three day notices, Klicka has written the superintendents to convince them that their policies are not mandated by statute and that any portion can be waived when they violate a family’s fundamental constitutional right to freely exercise their religious beliefs. He also explains the vagueness of the law and describes the pending Jeffery suit’s implications on that particular school district.
Thus far only one of these situations have ended up in court and several have been resolved. The Ringhold, Manheim, and Bensalem school districts have waived testing in the public schools on behalf of several HSLDA families. The Coatesville and McKeesport school superintendents have waived teacher certification requirements, home visits, and testing at the public school for HSLDA homeschools after extensive negotiations. After hearing from the HSLDA legal staff, the Crawford school district has held off prosecution of three families who received three day notices because they could not comply with the excessive restrictions.
In one unsettling situation in St. Mary’s, the superintendent called a homeschooled boy in August on his eighth birthday to wish him a “happy birthday.” He also made sure the family understood that he must be enrolled in public school when the school year started. Apparently, the superintendents track students down through the census.
Continue to pray for all the many families who are still waiting to see if the superintendents will waive their restrictive policies instead of taking the families to court. Also continue to pray God will give wisdom and skill to the HSLDA attorneys as they negotiate with the superintendents and solicitors.