A Tale of Two Critics
Michael P. Farris
Scripture warns us to beware when all men speak well of us. Since sharp criticism from two opposite viewpoints is coming our way regarding our opposition to the Senate's proposed funding of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, I am beginning to feel we were on the right track! The public attack of HSLDA was waged in the form of two well-written articles, one coming from the political left of the home schooling movement, the other from the right. I would rather not name names.
Let's take a second look at S.695 and our concern for the funding of NBPTS in light of these two criticisms. The right is saying that S. 695's funding of the NBPTS is the most dangerous thing that has ever happened to home schoolers. They view the protective language exempting home schoolers from the bill as totally inadequate.
The left criticizes us because they see the NBPTS as a benign group of public educators solely attempting to improve the public schools. They view HSLDA and the 100,000 home schoolers who barraged Capitol Hill with phone calls and letters as uninformed alarmists.
There are some common elements in these criticisms. Each author checked with only one source before publishing his blast, and neither author called to clarify the rationale for our views before writing a scathing (from the right) or sarcastic (from the left) attack of our actions.
The author from the right checked only with Senator Helms' office before writing his story. Senator Helms' aide gave the person accurate information, but told the author of potential problems that could occur under a “worst case” scenario. The aide made it clear that these extreme cases were unlikely to occur. Nonetheless, the author from the right treated these cautions as established fact and sounded an alarm, warning that the protective language is not good enough.
In the meantime, HSLDA has obtained appropriate proof which could be used in court to protect home schoolers against these “worst case” scenarios.
Although the critic from the left talked with several people, they all represented one perspective—that of active proponents of the NBPTS. He was assured by Senator Dodd's office that they meant home schoolers no harm. He also talked with an official at the NBPTS who assured him of their benign intentions toward home schoolers.
This critic made some important factual errors in his presentation as well. He claims that title X passed 92-8 in the Senate. That statistic describes the vote on final passage after the home school protective language was placed in the bill. The motion to delete all funding for the NBPTS by striking title X failed by a 64-35 vote. This critic was also inaccurate in stating that the funding of title X had been passed in the House before reaching the Senate floor for consideration and before the home schoolers' alert was activated. This is not true. The House has yet to consider this bill. The House version of S. 695 (H.R. 1675) has no reference to title X appropriations in its text!
HSLDA was originally alerted to the problems with the NBPTS by home schoolers from several different states who had read articles about the board in their local papers. These articles uniformly carried the wording that the NBPTS was out to dispel “the myth that any modestly educated person with an instinct for nurturing children” was capable of teaching.
We were then alerted a second time to the problems in the bill's funding of the NBPTS by Dr. Charles O'Malley, Director of Private Education programs for the United States Department of Education.
We talked with our friends in the conservative pro-family movement. We talked with the dean of constitutional lawyers, William Ball. We talked with moderate Republican senators. We talked with conservatives. We talked with liberal Democrats. We read the published material written by the NBPTS where the “myth” quotation originated.
We have subsequently talked with officials from the NBPTS. Inge Cannon, associate director of the National Center for Home Education, and I met with Sally Mernissi, Director of Government Relations for the NBPTS. I also had a very cordial phone call with (former) Governor James Hunt, the chairman of the NBPTS.
Both of them assured me that the NBPTS had no intention to harm home schoolers, and like the critic from the left, I believed them. However, what the critic from the left apparently misses is the perspective of how these things work in real life.
A few years ago, as HSLDA was being founded, Congress passed a law requiring all schools, public and private, to do whatever was necessary to remove asbestos from their facilities. Did Congress intend to require home schoolers to rid their homes of asbestos? Of course not! But asbestos inspectors didn't know that. They simply read the law which stated that all schools had to have asbestos removed. Home schools in many states, including California and Texas, are treated as private schools.
In these states we experienced major difficulties with local officials who wanted either to have families go through inspections with possible major renovations or else stop conducting “private schools” in their homes. After months of efforts, we finally received a letter from the Environmental Protection Agency, assuring us that home schools were not included in the mandatory inspections.
It would have been much better if there had been a disclaimer written into the original law, something like “This act does not require home schools to do asbestos inspections or be in compliance with the standard.”
Did Congress intend to hassle home schoolers? No. Were home schoolers being hassled? Hundreds of them were.
Currently several branches of our nation's military service are refusing to allow a person to enlist unless he or she has graduated from a high school which has been approved by the state department of education. GED graduates are not permitted to enlist unless they first complete several hours of college credit and even then are often treated as less desirable candidates for training programs and eventual promotions.
In many states, California and Texas again being good examples, private schools are not “approved” by the state department of education. Thus, almost all home schoolers and millions of private school students are ineligible to enlist in military service because their diplomas do not bear the endorsement of their states.
Does the Department of Defense intend to prevent these students from enlisting? We don't think so. Are they preventing students of legitimate home schools and private schools from enlisting? Yes, they are.
We are working right now with the Pentagon and the Department of Education to see if we can clarify this misunderstanding and providing wording for an acceptable enlistment policy.
Almost 30 states in our nation are considering pending legislation which would deny drivers' permits and licenses to students who are not enrolled in approved high schools or have recognized high school diplomas. Do the state legislators intend to hassle home-school students? No. But, if the legislation passes without appropriate clarification, the clerk at the local Department of Motor Vehicles might not allow a home-schooled student to be authorized to drive a car. “No bona fide enrollment or diploma—no license!”
Legislators rarely intend to harm home schoolers in these types of situations. But what the critic from the left fails to realize is that unintended bad consequences to home schoolers can occur if the language of a bill appears to include us in a broad, sweeping way.
In S. 695, there were definitional sections for both elementary schools and secondary schools. These definitional sections cross-referenced definitions which came from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. I was the lawyer who traced these definitions to assist Senator Helms' staff. Elementary schools were defined as “a day or residential school which provides elementary instruction.” Secondary schools were defined as “a day or residential school which provides secondary instruction.”
Armed with these definitional sections, some bureaucrat five years from now could appear on the doorstep of a home school and demand to see the parent's teaching certificate from the NBPTS. (This assumes that the state board of education or state legislature would have passed a law or regulation requiring teachers to possess NBPTS certification after having taught a specified number of years.) The home schooler could say, “I am sorry, but that bill doesn't apply to us. I have this nice article here saying that Senator Dodd didn't mean to include us.”
The bureaucrat could respond, “Too bad. I have a law right here, and it states ‘a school providing elementary instruction.’ You are one of those. Where's your certificate?”
An article written by the critic from the left provides us with no protection. Verbal assurances from Senator Dodd made to that critic could not be introduced as evidence in court. The protective clause we obtained in S. 695 does provide protection and could be used in court.
If the critic from the left had either done the legal research or talked with someone who had, it is likely he could have been convinced of the bill's potential danger to home schoolers lurking in the definitional sections.
Sally Mernissi at NBPTS commented to us that they had been “sensitized” to home schoolers. They are now convinced that home schoolers are a much larger group than the NBPTS leadership ever realized, and they believe that we are well-organized, far better than most constituency groups.
We have now sensitized both the NBPTS and Capitol Hill to home schooling. One staffer for the democratic leadership of the education committee told me, “I hope home schoolers don't inundate us every time we have an education bill.” I replied, “They won't as long as the bills are carefully written so that we aren't caught in unintentional traps.”
One good thing has transpired from all of this—Jim Hunt has invited me to observe the next board meeting of the NBPTS. There is a strong possibility that I will be given permanent observer status. This is important because intentions change, especially here in Washington, D.C. where people change jobs frequently. We can have benign folks in office today; less friendly individuals could replace them tomorrow; or they could be replaced by people who have not been sensitized to home schooling at all.
HSLDA needs your prayers as we work not only to defend our member families in court, but also as we try to help state organizations with legislative efforts, as we attempt to unravel problems like the military ban on home schoolers, and as we attempt to monitor federal legislation for problems intended or unintended. We want always to be available to any home schooler who is concerned about an issue of public significance, and we will be happy to share any information and perspective we have gleaned through our research about an issue. We're here to serve.