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August 28, 2012

Homeschoolers Pack School Committee Meeting

Homeschoolers pack the Upton-Mendon School Committee to protest restrictive changes to the district homeschool policy.
Homeschoolers crowd Monday’s Upton-Mendon School Committee meeting to protest restrictive changes to the district homeschool policy.

Staff Attorney Mike Donnelly defends your freedom to homeschool in Massachusetts. He and his wife homeschool.

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Scores of homeschooling parents attended a school committee meeting at Nipmuc Regional High School in Massachusetts Monday to oppose a new and intrusive policy passed without their input. Homeschool support group and state leaders, including Bob Jacobson of MASSHope and Bill Heuer of MHLA, also attended. The meeting was orderly although it was obvious that many homeschoolers were concerned about the changes being made.

The Upton-Mendon School Committee revised the policy in early May 2012, but did not inform homeschoolers of the changes until after July 17. Ironically, one of the new provisions was a 30-day deadline to submit homeschool proposals, meaning that homeschoolers had only a few days to complete their planning if they were to comply with new policy.

HSLDA members in the district informed Mike Donnelly, staff attorney for Massachusetts member affairs, about the new policy. Donnelly, a Massachusetts attorney who has been serving state members for six years, found numerous inconsistencies between the policy and state homeschool law. He wrote a letter to the superintendent which resulted in the policy subcommittee discussion. At the request of the members, HSLDA dispatched Donnelly to attend the subcommittee policy meeting.

Working toward Change

Donnelly met with the crowd of homeschoolers before and after the meeting, fielding questions and encouraging them to work with school officials to change the policy.

“I find the tone of this policy concerning,” he said. “If the school committee had solicited input from homeschoolers in advance we wouldn’t have this problem. However, I have found that when homeschoolers step up and work with school committees these situations can often be resolved,” he added. “No matter what happens, however, I want you to know that HSLDA is here to back you up and work with you to help you develop a policy that respects your rights.”

Superintendent Joseph Maruszczak suggested that the reason for the new policy was inconsistencies from previous years.

“In the previous district I worked I was responsible for approving home instruction plans,” he said. “Part of the problem I see around here is that this is been a largely paper process. I’m concerned about the great degree of inconsistency with what I receive from homeschooling parents. I want to meet with every home instructor parent to discuss their plan.”

Seeking a Practical Approach

Donnelly stated that he did not agree that requiring parents to attend a meeting with the superintendent was consistent with Massachusetts homeschool law. During a dialogue between Donnelly and Subcommittee Chairwoman Liana Moore regarding the necessity of children staying in school even if a plan has not yet been approved, he urged the committee to adopt a practical approach to solving problems by focusing on the solution rather than on legal technicalities. Donnelly further explained that although the law does anticipate prior approval, it permits the school committee to exercise discretion when to prosecute in the absence of an approved plan.

“I would urge you to adopt a flexible policy that encourages the school district and homeschooling parents to work together, where both parties desire to do so, to find an approach that works. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t fit anyone,” Donnelly said. “For example, requiring that everyone meet with the superintendent to discuss a homeschool plan will not be acceptable to many—a written plan is sufficient. We would ask you to adopt an approach that excuses anyone who has submitted a written plan pending approval. HSLDA is committed to defending our members’ rights to direct their children’s education and to decide when and whether their child should attend the public school.”

The room erupted with applause as Donnelly assured the school committee that, “If necessary, HSLDA will defend our members in court who have submitted their plans pending approval.”

At one point a member of the audience asked the school committee whether or not they would prosecute anyone for truancy if they have not complied with the new policy. Ms. Moore stated that the school committee did not intend to prosecute anyone who was submitting their information while the policy remained under review.

“If you started to comply with the policy, it’s not our intent to take action against you,” she said. “Obviously, if you only send in a letter with your child’s name and your address, that might be a problem.”

Sharing Concerns

During the hour-long meeting, members of the community shared their concerns with the school committee members present. Sylvie Dugas, a homeschooling parent who volunteered to work with the committee, said it was hard to understand why they were taking such a hard line.

“I can’t think of one homeschooler that I know of who is not working day and night to make it work for their children. This makes it so hard for us to hear these kinds of overbearing policy prescriptions,” she said.

The school committee signaled willingness to work with homeschoolers by agreeing to accept comments to the policy for the next two weeks. Comments should be sent to the Policy Subcommittee Chair Ms. Liana Moore at Liana.p.moore@gmail.com. Donnelly will file public comments with the committee.The committee also agreed to take the matter up at a subsequent policy subcommittee meeting to be held in late September or early October.

Homeschoolers in the Upton-Mendon District are encouraged to contact HSLDA and get involved to help craft a better policy. HSLDA encourages all members in this school district to send their comments to Ms. Moore and to be prepared to attend policy subcommittee meeting in the coming months. Homeschoolers in the district who wish to be involved in working on this situation may contact Ms. Dugas at sylvieedugas@gmail.com.

HSLDA is grateful for the support of all of our members who make it possible for us to stand with all homeschoolers who are threatened with unnecessary and unreasonable government intrusion. Whether it is a school board or state legislature, a local superintendent or commissioner of education, HSLDA is committed to defending your right to homeschool with the least possible government interference. Share this story with your friends and encourage them to stand with us as we stand together defending homeschoolers everywhere!