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March 21, 2016

Kafka Chowder—Manhattan Style

Jim Mason
Vice President for Litigation and Development

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Webster’s defines “Kafkaesque” as “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.” Next to the definition you will see a picture of the New York City Public School’s central homeschooling office.

It all began on a recent Wednesday evening as I watched Special Report with Brett Baier in my family room. The answering service called just as the show got to my favorite part—Charles Krauthammer’s piquant critique of the current crop of presidential wannabees.

“Mrs. T from Manhattan has a social worker in her apartment,” said the service. “I’ll connect you.”

Never a good sign that the investigator is already inside the apartment—so I muted Dr. K and braced myself.

“Jim Mason, here,” I said in my most confident-sounding professional voice. “So what’s going on?”

Mrs. T sounded much less nervous than I had expected.

“She says that my son’s school reported me for too many absences,” said Mrs. T. “But I withdrew him over a month ago to homeschool.”

Being well-acquainted with New York’s homeschooling regulation, I asked her if she had sent her notice of intent to the superintendent when she withdrew her son.

“Certified return-receipt,” she responded. “And I sent a copy to the school, also return receipt.”

Safety not an Issue

Mrs. T was in the middle of moving to another apartment so her copies were not immediately available to show the investigator, but she could have them by the next day. The investigator confirmed that there were no safety concerns; the only issue was that the school had been marking Mrs. T’s son absent for over a month. Even so, the investigator explained, she needed to interview the child in private and inspect the apartment.

“I think we can clear this all up tomorrow,” I proposed, “by having Mrs. T provide you with her proof that she is lawfully homeschooling.”

After explaining to me the urgent need to look inside Mrs. T’s refrigerator—because that’s what they always do—the investigator thought it might be okay to wait until the next day. She called her supervisor, confirmed that refrigerator-snooping could be postponed, and left with stern instructions to produce documents and child the next day at her office.

The next morning, I turned Mrs. T over to our contact lawyer for New York, Tj Schmidt. Because of New York’s antiquated, arcane homeschooling regulation, he spends much of his time sorting out paperwork issues between homeschoolers and school districts. But as I learned that Thursday morning, the rest of New York doesn’t hold a candle to New York City for “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical” relationship with homeschoolers.

A Consolidated Mess

First, rather than homeschoolers dealing with their own school districts (as set out in the regulation), New York City has consolidated all of the administrative functions relating to homeschooling for all the school districts in all five boroughs in one central office on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. Second, it underfunds and undermans that office, which—surprise!—leads to delays, lost paperwork, and a high level of underperformance and dissatisfaction.

Next, NYC’s central homeschooling office controls the attendance database for all the schools in the entire city as the data relates to homeschooling. So even though Mrs. T notified both the central office and the school before she began homeschooling, the school could not flip the switch in the attendance database to turn off her son’s “absences.” And the central office, always woefully behind, had not gotten around to it yet.

The nightmare continues.

Even though the school knew that Mrs. T had filed a notice of intent to homeschool, it reported her to CPS for “educational neglect” because its policy required it to do so after so many “absences” had accrued.

Which brings us to that Wednesday night. The investigator I spoke to behaved in a polite, professional, and reasonable manner. But her regulations required her to speak to the children in private and inspect the home—including inside the refrigerator—every time. No exceptions! Even when other officials are probably at fault. That she left Mrs. T’s apartment that Wednesday night without doing so was unusual and to be commended as the exercise of common sense.

Mrs. T and Tj Schmidt persuaded the CPS investigator to close the investigation but not without visits to the office, considerable inconvenience, and much unnecessary anxiety for Mrs. T and her son. Not to mention a complete waste of the investigator’s time, which could have been much better spent helping children truly in need.

Truly Bizarre

To sum up:

  • Mrs. T did everything right.
  • The NYC central homeschooling office did everything wrong.
  • The school behaved according to some Bizarro World, opposite-day bureaucratic logic.

We’ve had enough!

In cooperation and consultation with homeschooling leaders and groups in New York City and across the state, HSLDA is embarking on a full court press to modernize the homeschooling regulation in New York, to relieve the needless burdens on homeschooling parents imposed by the current regulation, and to chastise the New York City Public School system.

Stay tuned to hslda.org/NY for updates.

If you are not yet a member of HSLDA, won’t you please consider joining today to stand with Mrs. T and thousands of other homeschoolers in New York and across the country who need our help and support? Or consider donating to the Homeschool Freedom Fund. Your tax-deductible gift will be used to support HSLDA’s litigation and education efforts.

Help us bring an end to Manhattan-style Kafka Chowder.