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New Hampshire

February 13, 2009

Record-Breaking Crowd Sends Message to Legislators

The New Hampshire legislature is known as the third-largest representative body in the world, ranking behind U.S. Congress and British Parliament. It also has an interesting tradition that all bills newly introduced get an up or down vote by the entire body. This makes for high-stakes legislation, explaining in part why all 400-plus seats in Representatives Hall and the visitors gallery were filled, with homeschoolers standing in aisles and doorways, and lines extending out the door and down several flights of stairs. Homeschool parents came to show their concern over proposed legislation that would radically rewrite the way they must annually assess their students.

Former State Senator Dave Wheeler, who is also a Christian Home Educators of New Hampshire (CheNH) board member, said he thinks the attendance was record-breaking, “I can’t remember there ever being such a large crowd of homeschoolers at the State House, ever.”

Rep. Scott Merrick of Lancaster, a member of the Education Committee, thought that the showing proves the bills are unnecessary. “I think if we take a look at the crowd, the homeschool community seems to be pretty well aware of the RSAs,” said Merrick. House Bill 368 would require participating agencies to send a copy of the law and “other resources” to parents. While in the act of complying with the law by submitting a notice of intent, parents would have to “affirm” that they intend to comply with the law.

House Bill 367, the more onerous of two proposed changes to New Hampshire’s homeschool law, would require parents to provide to public school authorities both a portfolio evaluation conducted by a certified teacher and standardized test results. Authorities would then have the discretion to determine whether a homeschool program should continue.

Close to 100 people testified against the bills, while less than 10 testified in favor. Those testifying in favor of the bill included Mary Heath, deputy commissioner of education and Roberta Tenny of the Department of Education.

“This is meant to be informative, not punitive,” said Heath. “I’m speaking for the parents who aren’t here today, who may not have the depth of understanding.”

Rep. Judith Day, the sole sponsor of the bills, tried to explain that her intent was to help—not harm—children in the state. However, the overwhelming testimony ran 10 to 1 against the proposed legislation. “This was not an attempt to end homeschooling,” said Day.

Rep. David Bates of Windham testified that superintendents of two school systems in his district were opposed to these bills because they were unnecessary and would place more work on their already overloaded public school staff. Responding to the argument from the few proponents of the legislation that 5–15% of homeschoolers are failing, Bates told the committee that “When I asked the superintendents how many times there had ever been a homeschooler put on probation for failure to demonstrate educational progress in compliance with the law, the answer was ‘never’ .”

Bates estimated that the cost to New Hampshire taxpayers would be over a million dollars for this proposal. “When I shared my calculations with the superintendents, they told me I was being overly conservative in my estimates and that costs would likely be substantially higher.”

Senator Sharon Carson, who served on the House Education Committee last year during the S.B. 337 proposal, told the committee that she didn’t understand what had gone wrong with the process. “Last year we were all here, and created a study commission, and added two legislators to the Home Education Advisory Council to insure that there was communication between homeschoolers, the legislature and other stakeholders. Something has gone wrong with the process we set up to get so many people to come here to oppose this legislation.”

Several homeschoolers testified, including one mother and her daughter. Responding to claims that homeschooled children are “falling through the cracks”, the daughter, diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, told the assembly:

“I was in public schools for nine years. I had some good teachers, bad ones, and some who didn’t care. I was one of those students who fell through the cracks, but it was a crack in the public school. I struggled through all nine years and wasn’t getting an education. Finally my mom did the only thing she could—she pulled me out of the school to homeschool me. After three years at home I am now getting the education that I need.”

HSLDA Staff Attorney Mike Donnelly pointed out that New Hampshire has experienced smooth relationships between homeschoolers and government since the law was passed in 1990, in contrast to surrounding states. “The troubles between the government and homeschooolers in the surrounding states of Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts have not existed in New Hampshire because you got it right the first time,” Donnelly told legislators. “The current law appropriately balances the state’s interest in education with parents’ rights to direct the education and upbringing of children. Passing this bill would make New Hampshire’s homeschool law among the nation’s most restrictive,” Donnelly stated.

Donnelly explained that no other state requires two evaluations. “The only state that requires portfolio evaluations every year is Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has many problems each year between homeschoolers and superintendents because the law is vague. But even in Pennsylvania children are only tested three times during their education. Requiring both testing and portfolio review every year is unreasonable and unnecessary. H.B. 367 would be a huge step backward for homeschoolers in New Hampshire and would run counter to the national trend of easing regulatory burdens on homeschoolers. Twelve states in recent years have eased the regulatory burden on homeschoolers, including Nevada, which now requires only a one-time notification and no annual assessments.”

Proponents of the bill, including the sponsor, claim that the state needs more data to make sure that all children are getting an adequate education. Committee Chairman Emma Rouse told the assembly that it was the responsibility of the Education Committee to make policy for all of New Hampshire’s children and not just those in the public schools. There were nearly a dozen representatives and senators who testified in opposition to the proposals.

One homeschooler testified that the idea that there was no data on homeschoolers performance was outrageous. “For nearly twenty years superintendents, non-public school principals and the Department of Education have been receiving end-of-year assessments on homeschoolers. The data is there—if you want to do the work to gather it and analyze it. And it shows what we all know—the overwhelming majority of homeschoolers are doing well and are not ‘slipping through the cracks’. It doesn’t make sense to impose this kind of regulation to catch the tiny fraction of homeschoolers who aren’t complying with the law, especially when the law does nothing to address that specific problem.”

Donnelly provided the committee with preliminary findings from a forthcoming study by Dr. Brian Ray. “Dr. Ray has found that New Hampshire homeschoolers perform better than their public school counterparts on standardized tests, and when compared to the scores of homeschooled students in more highly regulated states, New Hampshire homeschoolers’ scores are slightly higher, demonstrating that increased regulation does not produce better test results.”

Wrapping up the testimony at 6:30 p.m. was Jim Parison, president of CheNH. “I’d like to break the rules here and applaud Chairman Rouse for her conduct of this hearing,” he said The remaining hundred or so people clapped as Chairman Rouse thanked the assembly and commented on how well behaved the children had been and how courteous everyone was during the proceedings, although at several points during the day she had threatened to clear the chamber when attendees applauded some speakers.

The Education Committee will meet sometime in the coming weeks in executive session to take up the bills and decide whether to recommend passage to the rest of the House.