After having been one of the most troublesome states for home schoolers, New York is on its way to passing new home schooling regulations which would vastly improve conditions there. The problem in New York has been that the statutes are extremely vague concerning home schooling, specifying only that “equivalent” instruction be given by a “competent teacher.” As a result, each district creates its own home schooling policy, which often includes home visits. HSLDA’s Blackwelder v. Safnauer federal civil rights case was filed in order to challenge this vagueness in the law and the discretion it gives to local superintendents, especially with regard to demands for home visits to home schoolers.
In March, the New York State Department of Education drew up a set of proposed regulations in order to remedy the vagueness problem, which were given preliminary consideration by the Board of Regents. While the Department of Education was pleased with its work, HSLDA’s Michael Farris and home school leaders throughout the state were not. These proposed regulations called for approval by local school districts, and contained many additional requirements, most notably home visits, that were seen as both burdensome and instructive.
To counter the problems seen in these proposed regulations, Mike Farris and Sharon Grimes, president of the state - wide organization Loving Education At Home (LEAH), gathered ideas from other home school group leaders and then approached the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), to suggest alternative regulations. The NYSSBA has been the chief opponent of home schooling in New York, and has filed numerous friend-of-the-court briefs in home schooling cases, supporting the rights of superintendents to enforce their rules. Since the NYSSBA represented the one extreme in the home schooling battle, and the home schoolers themselves the other, Farris hoped that by bringing the two ends of the spectrum together their differences could finally be resolved.
Farris and Grimes spent two days in mid-April meeting with NYSSBA officials in Albany and succeeded in drawing up a new set of proposed regulations which satisfied both groups. These proposed regulations were then shown to the Commissioner of Education, who subsequently announced his full endorsement of them before the Board of Regents. Since the proposed regulations already have the support of the two chief opponents (the NYSSBA and the home schoolers, as represented by Farris and Grimes), the additional approval of the Commissioner almost insures their passage by the Board of Regents, which will result in enactment of the regulations for the coming school year.
This alternative set of proposed regulations is a great improvement over the first set. No approval is required by these regulations: only a notice of intent must be filed by July 1, or within 14 days of beginning to home school if one begins during the school year. Furthermore, parents must present an instructional plan for each child, including a description of the curriculum and a plan for reporting progress. An annual assessment of each child’s progress must be submitted, which may consist of either standardized testing or a narrative review of the child’s work. Parents may choose which of these methods to use each year, except that standardized testing must occur every other year from fourth to eighth grade, and every year after the ninth grade.
Home visits are virtually excluded by the proposed regulations. They may not be required unless a family is on probation, and the superintendent has “reasonable grounds to believe that the program is in substantial non-compliance with the regulations.” Basically, home visits would only be permitted in cases where there is reason to believe the family is not doing home schooling at all, or is failing grossly to complete their educational program.
In general, although the proposed regulations are fairly detailed, they will help significantly to remove the arbitrariness which now poses such a problem in the state. They are therefore viewed positively by virtually all home school groups in New York, whose input was sought in the process of developing the proposed regulations.
As a part of these negotiations regarding the proposed home schooling regulations, the PEP test requirement for home schoolers will also be removed. The Commissioner of Education stated in late April that home schoolers are not to be required by their local school districts to take the PEP tests along with public school students in May, but should instead delay testing until at least June 15. Then, when the Regents meet in May to consider the proposed home schooling regulations, they will also repeal the PEP test requirement for home schoolers.
VICTORY IN FAMILY COURT
The Blackwelder family, one of the families involved in our federal civil rights action, appeared in family court on March 24 and 25, 1988, to answer charges of educational neglect of their daughters. Their superintendent, Mr. Safnauer, continued to insist that he could not approve their program without a home visit, despite the fact that all other aspects of their home school program met with approval. Although the Blackwelders’ school district was already involved in the federal suit, they chose to file charges against them in family court.
Michael Farris argued the case in Auburn in March. At that court appearance, Dr. Raymond Moore testified as an expert witness about the Blackwelders’ qualifications to teach their children, the equivalency of their curriculum, and the children’s progress. This phase of the trial covered only the factual issues in the case. The trial was slated to continue in late April, at which time the attorneys for both sides would make their oral arguments and the judge would issue his decision. If at that time the Blackwelders lost the case on the factual issues, there would be a second phase to the trial in which the Blackwelders could argue their constitutional issues.
Mike Farris went to Auburn again for the oral arguments, and at this appearance, the judge ruled in the Blackwelders’ favor and dismissed the case, saying that there were no grounds for an educational neglect verdict. In this decision, however, the judge said that both home visits and testing, among other things, were “reasonable” requirements on home schoolers. In addition, the judge ruled that home visits would not violate the family’s religious convictions, nor would they be unlawful searches. In the Blackwelders’ case, however, they had presented sufficient evidence to prove that the children were not educationally neglected. Thus, despite the fact that home visits would have been a “reasonable” requirement for Supt. Safnauer to impose, the charges of neglect had to be dismissed.
Normally, HSLDA would appeal a decision worded in such terms, but since this was a quasi-criminal trial in which the Blackwelders were the defendants, we cannot appeal the decision (since they won the case). It is therefore extremely fortunate in the light of the wording of the judge’s decision that the new home schooling regulations will be in effect soon. Otherwise, the case would have set a highly unfavorable precedent for home schoolers because of the judge’s explicit approval of home visits and the other requirements mentioned in the decision. Once the proposed regulations have been adopted by the Regents, however, superintendents will not be able to demand home visits, and thus the Blackwelder decision should not have any adverse effects on other home schooling situations.
Regardless of the wording of the judge’s opinion, the dismissal of these educational neglect charges marks the end of many months of legal battling and the accompanying interruptions and anxiety for the Blackwelders. We praise God with them for this resolution to their situation.