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Homeschoolers counted 176 homeschool supporters at the Overlook Middle School Auditorium on Wednesday night, October 13, 2004. Superintendent Michael Zapantis had to move the meeting from the Middle School Library, to the auditorium upstairs to hold the overflow. Two school board members and local reporters joined approximately 20 homeschoolers from the district and well over 100 supporters from around Massachusetts to discuss the Ashburnham-Westminster homeschool policy. By working hard and working together, these families achieved all of HSLDA's objectives for that meeting.
The proposed Ashburnham-Westminster policy was, at best, a major mistake by a well-intentioned superintendent. When Dr. Zapantis moved to Ashburnham, the district's homeschool policy was nine years out of date and had not been enforced for years. As he explained to the audience at the forum, he had drafted a few changes to the policy to "make my job easier." The response he got on Wednesday night demonstrated the problem with that approach. One homeschooler after another rose to explain the problems with the policy.
Dr. Zapantis appears to misunderstand the real limits that school districts operate under when they attempt to regulate home education. Under Massachusetts law, homeschoolers do not really have to comply with any particular procedures in a local school district policy. State law requires a family to seek "approval" from the local school district, but if the district refuses to "approve" a home education proposal, the family is still free to educate their children without approval. While the district may prosecute the family (either in criminal court or in a "care and protection" proceeding), the family will win that case unless the school officials can prove (and, in a criminal case, prove beyond a reasonable doubt) that the instruction outlined in the home education proposal "fails to equal in thoroughness, efficiency, and the progress made therein that in the local public school in the same town." This means that homeschools are legal every single time a child is learning as much at home as he or she would in that town's public school. If a child is learning less at home than in the public school, then, and only then, the district can shut that homeschool down.
Dr. Zapantis repeatedly referred to the binding Supreme Judicial Court precedents of Care and Protection of Charles and Brunelle v. School Committee of Lynn as "vague" or "ambiguous." This reveals a lack of understanding on his part. The court expressly held, in Charles, that Massachusetts law on this issue is not "vague." The constitutional law that governs homeschooling may be complex, but it is not ambiguous.
Massachusetts homeschoolers who understand the law and who are courageous enough to exercise their rights know that they have a remarkable degree of freedom. Problems arise when vulnerable families try to homeschool in a difficult district. Single mothers, families with disabled children, and families on public assistance all often find it hard to resist otherwise unenforceable school district demands. That is why it is so important for homeschoolers to hang together!
The Ashburnham forum was an excellent opportunity for diverse homeschoolers to come together in defense of liberty. Tammy Rosenblatt, of the Massachusetts Home Learning Association, attended and stood up for the families in the district. Many MassHOPE members attended, too. The Catholic Home Instructors of Massachusetts East (CHIME) did what they could to show their solidarity.
The next step in Ashburnham, by all accounts, is to establish a subcommittee with homeschoolers participating from the beginning. That subcommittee will have to wrestle with the contentious issue of standardized testing. Dr. Zapantis plans to insist on standardized testing both before and after each school year. Since many homeschoolers have passionate objections to "standardizing" their children through mandatory testing, this promises to be a sticking point in days to come.
If your district does not require standardized testing in every case, please consider writing a letter to:
Ashburnham-Westminster School Committee,
C/O Dr. Michael Zapantis,
11 Oakmont Drive,
Ashburnham, MA 01430
Your short, factual letter explaining that your district does not require standardized testing, will help me preserve the liberty of the families in the Ashburnham-Westminster school district.