Six months of uncertainty came to an end for four Rhode Island families last March, when the East Providence School Committee reversed its earlier decision to deny them the right to home school their children.
"The East Providence school district has changed overnight," exclaimed Michelle Hall, one of the home schooling moms, after she learned about the committee's decision.
|Michelle and Charlie Hall with Brian, 13, and Stephanie, 11. "Fight for your rights!"|
In Rhode Island, families wishing to educate their children at home must submit a notice of intent to the local school committee. Although the statute governing home schooling purports to give the school committees the authority to "approve" at-home instruction, that "approval" legally amounts only to an administrative review of the notice and should be forthcoming if the notice includes all of the statutory requirements.
Not so, said Dr. Jacqueline Forbes in her first year as East Providence Director of Elementary Education. On October 11, 2001, the East Providence School Committee met to consider the notices of four Home School Legal Defense Association member families, the Muldovans, Andersons, Halls, and Mooradians. The school committee denied all four the right to home school.
"I was just shocked that we were denied," said Susan Anderson. "We sent our notification with the full curriculum, and also a cover letter that described in more detail who we were and why we were doing this."
Her husband, Christopher Anderson, a real estate administrator for a wireless communications company, agreed. "We had sent in a warm letter of explanation of our purpose for home schooling along with our notice. We were quite surprised to have been denied acknowledgment, without explanation, together with a veiled threat of legal action."
The letter the families received from the district did not explain why the home schools were denied. It did, however, threaten possible fines or imprisonment if the families did not immediately enroll their children in a public or private school.
|"When home schoolers unite, we can stand up to the school district." Michael and Wendy Muldovan with (L-R) Adam, Joy, Gabriel, and Benjamin—now ages 3,6,5, and 3, respectively.|
The letter created a high degree of uncertainty. "I felt like the school district was breathing down my neck," said Wendy Muldovan.
Janis Mooradian's granddaughter, Brianna, took the school committee's action seriously. In addition to home schooling Brianna, Janis operates Coyote's Corner, a home business. Her answering machine proudly announces that her company supplied the pow-wow drums used in the opening ceremony of this year's Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"Brianna was worried that some sort of 'school police' would come and take her away from me," said Janis. "She even had a little suitcase packed and ready to go. There was no sense of stability, and children need that."
The four families were not the only ones shocked. The entire Rhode Island home schooling community was surprised that a school committee would behave in such a high-handed way.
"The school committee's action was unprecedented," said Mike Wroblewski, legislative director of Rhode Island Guild of Home Teachers (RIGHT). "We are aware of no other school committee in Rhode Island that has ever denied so many home schoolers at one time, or done so without offering some explanation."
"Incomplete application process"
The four families immediately notified HSLDA of the committee's action. Attorney Scott Woodruff fired off several letters asking for the specific reasons why our members' home schooling programs had been rejected.
In response, the district wrote that all of the families were denied due to "an incomplete application process." The letter did not specify in what respects the committee deemed the notices of intent to be incomplete. Indeed, it would have been difficult for the committee to do so since the notices fully complied with the Rhode Island statute.
The four families each appealed the denials to the Rhode Island Department of Education and continued to home school. They also resubmitted their notices to the East Providence School Committee in hopes that the committee would reconsider the denials. The request for reconsideration was prepared by HSLDA's litigation team and was designed to precisely conform to the requirements of the statute.
|Janis Mooradian's granddaughter Brianna, 9, "worried that some sort of 'school police' would come and take her away from me."|
New procedures to "monitor" home schoolers
In response to the request for reconsideration, East Providence revealed that it had recently created new "procedures" for dealing with home schooled children.
For instance, East Providence had developed a specific form for home schoolers to use for their notification, and insisted that everyone had to use that form. It required parents to sign a Memorandum of Agreement, which contained several extra-statutory requirements. Instead of deferring to parental preference in testing (as the statute allows) the "procedures" required "periodic testing consistent with school testing procedures, both standardized and criterion-referenced." Most ominously, the district's new procedures required that the parents consent to "monitoring" by school district personnel.
Faced with this obvious attempt by the East Providence School District to assert unlawful control over home schools, these families determined to pursue their appeals.
"What really stood out to me was that they kept changing the rules," said Michelle Hall. "We never really got a reason why we were turned down. They never told us why so that we could correct it."
Wendy Muldovan agreed. "Their story was always changing, and they didn't seem to have any consistent policy."
A misconception of home schoolers
Even more troubling to Mrs. Hall was the school committee's apparent misunderstanding about the kind of people who home school and about how effective home schooling has proven to be. At a school committee meeting later in the winter she overheard a conversation involving at least one school official.
"One of them commented derogatorily against home schoolers in general, saying that we don't belong around here. The official implied that we should be out in Indiana somewhere, since we all drive pickup trucks with shotgun racks," said Hall, whose husband is a law enforcement officer.
After the families filed their notices of appeal, HSLDA applied to the Supreme Court of Rhode Island for permission to handle the appeal in the state Department of Education. As is usual when an appeal is pending, the East Providence school district took no further action against the families while waiting for the supreme court to act.
On February 20, 2002, the Rhode Island Supreme Court admitted HSLDA's litigation attorneys. At the direction of the department of education, HSLDA immediately sent a letter to the attorney for the school committee to schedule a hearing date.
|"Remain poised and refuse to be intimidated." Susan and Chris Anderson enjoy bike riding with (L-R) Gloria, 3, Joy, 7, and Simmie, 4.|
Unannounced visits by a truant officer
The school committee did not respond to our letter. Instead, to everyone's surprise and dismay, East Providence sent a truant officer to the Hall, Muldovan, and Mooradian homes. His purpose for the visits is not entirely clear, but at least one family reported that the truant officer politely informed them that since the school committee had never approved their home schooling programs, they were in violation of the law and should immediately enroll their children in school.
When the home school support network, which the families describe as "wonderful," learned about the day's first truant officer visit, it called other families who had been denied and warned them that they could also be visited. When the officer arrived at the Muldovan house, he was impressed that they already knew he would be coming.
Because of the apparent threat of imminent prosecution, HSLDA's litigation team arranged for the appeal hearings to be held on an emergency basis, before the week was out.
HSLDA Litigation Counsel James R. Mason, III, then notified the school committee's attorney, Andrew A. Thomas, of the hearing date and asked him to guarantee that no prosecution or harassment would occur while the appeal was pending. Thomas immediately faxed a letter to HSLDA assuring us that neither the truant officer nor the East Providence School Committee would take any enforcement action. With that written assurance in hand, HSLDA agreed to cancel the emergency hearings and scheduled the appeal hearings for a later date.
"A man's heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps." Proverbs 16:9
Just a few days after the emergency hearing had been cancelled, while our attorneys were preparing for the appeal, the East Providence School Committee met. At the conclusion of the meeting, the families learned that several home schools had been "approved," but because of confidentiality rules, the names of those families were not disclosed.
A person who attended the meeting reported that one committee member said that the members didn't like it, but they had been told that as long as a notice of intent contained exactly what the statute requires they had no choice but to "approve" it.
Within a couple of days, each family received confirmation from the school committee that their ordeal was over. "My reaction was, 'Hurray!'" said Susan Anderson. "I knew people had been praying."
Wendy Muldovan echoed this sentiment, "I thought it was a real answer to prayer."
"In the past 20 years," said J. Michael Smith, President of HSLDA, "home schooling has gone from being legal in only five states to being legal in all 50." He credits the Lord's hand of blessing for the dramatic success of the home schooling movement.
"Families all over the country, like these Rhode Island families, have stood firm in their commitment to train up their own children," said Smith. "Like He did for Shadrach, Meshak and Abednego, the Lord protects those who honor Him."
Home schoolers unite and stand firm
Relieved that the situation has been resolved without having to appear in court or before the commissioner, Michelle Hall is now teaching her two junior high students without worrying about each knock at the door. Her advice to home schooling families in similar circumstances: "Fight for your rights!"
The others agree. "Don't back down, and don't be fearful.
I think a single family on its own would have been taken advantage of, but when home schoolers unite, we can stand up to the school district," said Wendy Muldovan.
|About the Author|
HSLDA Litigation Attorney Jim Mason has defended home schoolers from truant officers, school superintendents, and social workers in the courts of Missouri, West Virginia, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and California. He obtained his undergraduate degree at Oregon State University and his law degree at Regent University. Jim and his wife, Debbie, home school their six children in Leesburg, Virginia.
Janis Mooradian heartily agreed: "Dig in, and have a lot of faith in your attorney!"
Christopher Anderson, a thoughtful home schooling dad, had these words of advice for all home schoolers:
- "Be sure you have a clear conviction and defensible understanding for what you are doing;
- remain poised and refuse to be intimidated;
- understand your natural and constitutional rights, and if a Christian believer, stand firm on the grounds of the ultimate human right-which is the right to obey the Lord;
- if a Christian believer, pray with authority and secure prayer support (this is ultimately a spiritual battle);
- secure the support of a local home school network (there is safety in numbers);
- if you are HSLDA members, do as much leg-work as necessary to provide thorough, accurate, real-time information to HSLDA on the situation (if you are not HSLDA members, prayerfully consider supporting this expert legal burden-bearing ministry); and
- at all times, you should maintain an attitude of calm grace toward those who oppose you, saying or doing nothing by attitude that can give school department personnel reasons to justify their intrusiveness or stoke their own spirit of suspicion, but giving every reason to win them over."
The Lord gives the victory
Because these four HSLDA-member families respectfully declined to bow to arbitrary authority, East Providence has gone from trying to enforce its own intrusive procedures to acknowledging that its role is simply to ensure that the notices of intent are complete. The district has even invited home schoolers to help revise its policy.
"We at HSLDA do our part," said Litigation Counsel Mason, "but the Lord gives the victory."