January 3, 2017
A Year of Victories and New Challenges
by Mike Smith
As 2016 closes and a new year opens, there is good news for homeschooling.
The movement is growing. Another state has eased its onerous regulations. Graduates are branching into a wider range of studies and careers. And change in federal leadership portends broader opportunities for recognition and equality.
Then there’s the bad news.
Despite these gains, homeschooling families still face discrimination, harassment, and the violation of their basic rights. And these transgressions seem to come mostly at the hands of officials who ought to know better.
At Home School Legal Defense Association, we witness these trends through the service we provide. In 2016 our attorneys and their assistants responded to 14,598 contacts from members—addressing issues from simple questions to major crises that required legal intervention. Only a small percentage of these ended up in court.
It’s our pleasure to assist our members. The greatest service we can provide them is helping to solve their problems, and it was a great year for doing just that. We fielded a lot of calls and saw victory in a significant number of court cases.
But what we really need to do is strike at the root causes of these legal conflicts.
Fed up with Discrimination
Homeschooled students and graduates have made great strides toward earning acceptance as they seek to enter a variety of fields. For the most part, colleges and the military not only grant these young people equal treatment, but often actively recruit them.
Unfortunately, our work last year shows that homeschooled students still encounter unfair obstacles while pursuing their post-graduation goals. Some of the worst offenders include trade schools, public service employers (such as police, fire, and rescue), and even some private sector employers.
As our Director of Federal Relations Will Estrada explained, the discrimination we encounter from institutions such as cosmetology schools stems from a twofold problem.
These schools are usually small and are less likely to have encountered homeschooled students. They are also more likely to face audits for compliance with federal higher education laws (usually because they accept student aid), so they’re reluctant to accept at face value what seems like an unknown quantity—a parent-issued diploma.
In these cases we do our best to persuade the individual schools to change their policies. We’re successful about 90 percent of the time. And as Will Estrada points out, in hopes of achieving broader solutions, “we have also begun working closely with the associations that accredit cosmetology and vocational schools.”
More troublesome is when local governments balk at hiring perfectly qualified homeschool graduates—such as when a Virginia police department initially refused to hire a candidate with a college degree just because her high school diploma was parent-issued.
Again, this case was one of many in which we advocated for individuals who eventually were offered the jobs they sought.
But our greatest successes came when we lobbied officials on the state level to enact changes that guaranteed equal treatment for homeschool graduates.
- In Arizona, HSLDA worked with the state homeschool organization to have the board that oversees police training standards make it easier for homeschool graduates to pursue positions in law enforcement.
- In Ohio, as a direct response to our advocacy on behalf of a homeschool graduate who was denied a job, a top official with the department of corrections issued a policy stating that it will treat all homeschool diplomas equally as required by law.
Speaking of efforts on the state level, HSLDA witnessed a breakthrough in 2016 when West Virginia finally reformed its antiquated (and restrictive) homeschool law. The sweeping changes aimed at easing reporting and testing requirements.
Sadly, instead of seeing the reforms take effect smoothly and uniformly on the local level, we observed instead what is probably the number one problem facing homeschool families today—harassment by officials who either don’t understand the law or just plain refuse to follow it.
Much of the time this harassment is limited and easily dealt with. In West Virginia, for example, our contact attorney Mike Donnelly simply explained to one local official that homeschooling families are not required to participate in state standardized testing.
Other times, however, officials’ mistaken ideas can seem truly bizarre. Some of the odder cases we dealt with last year included:
- A California public school district that claimed homeschooling is not “a lawful alternative.”
- A Pennsylvania public school superintendent who thought the best way to resolve a perplexing paperwork issue was to send a homeschooled student back to the 1st grade.
- A Virginia official who told a family they could not begin homeschooling until they got a doctor’s note.
- New York parents who were investigated because they refused to take government money.
Of course, whenever we encounter ignorance about the homeschooling law, we’ll be happy to help educate folks regarding what the law is—even if it takes more than a quick phone call or email.
Last spring in Pennsylvania, for instance, our contact attorney Dan Beasley had to set straight a number of public school superintendents who apparently hadn’t grasped a 2014 reform regarding student portfolios.
“We encountered a rash of school districts who were still demanding a review of records in the portfolio,” said Beasley. “We sent close to a dozen letters to school officials clarifying the law. In every case, we were successful in educating school officials on the changes and persuading them to drop the request for records.”
Taking Advocacy to the Next Level
When harassment becomes widespread, or when bureaucracy threatens fundamental rights, our response escalates.
Last summer, HSLDA organized a grassroots campaign to protest a Colorado agency’s form, which forced parents to sign statements they did not agree with in order to exempt their children from immunizations. The agency eventually amended the form to remove this violation of conscience.
In Vermont, HSLDA has agreed to represent families who are being scrutinized by the state agency of education for failing to follow instructions that were not included on the official form. (When we objected—for obvious reasons—the agency responded that while the form itself had changed, their expectations for the form had not.)
And most recently, we filed a lawsuit against New York City for its systematic mistreatment of homeschooling families. Essentially, the city’s central office is so archaic and overburdened that it routinely fails to meet deadlines for processing paperwork. This often results in homeschooling families being investigated on bogus charges of truancy or neglect.
“Family after family have found themselves in legal limbo because the central office simply cannot or will not follow the timelines in the regulation,” said James Mason, HSLDA’s Director of Litigation.
Tj Schmidt, our contact attorney for New York, added: “In a city as diverse as New York, it’s hard to understand why the system in place has not been updated to aid parents who seek an educational alternative that best suits the needs of their children.”
Winning Legal Battles
Much of our advocacy lands us in court, and 2016 was no exception. We stayed busy, posting several victories and following up on ongoing cases.
Perhaps our most significant achievement was obtaining a large settlement on behalf of California homeschooling mother Vanessa Wilson, whose children were snatched by child protective services (CPS) in 2014.
Wilson had been accused of medical neglect, not based on any evidence, but because of faulty assumptions by the lead CPS caseworker. In fact, evidence showing that the mother was properly caring for her daughter, who has juvenile diabetes, was suppressed in subsequent court hearings. (You can read the whole story here.)
Winning this case was definitely the highlight of our litigation department’s year. It was good to be able to go on the offense in federal court and make a statement on behalf of someone whose rights were seriously abused.
Other times we went to court included:
- Helping Ohio homeschooling parents who were accused of “contributing to the delinquency” of their children because of paperwork discrepancies.
- Filing objections to a federal magistrate’s recommendation in favor of a police officer who forcibly entered a New York HSLDA member’s home.
- Appealing an unfavorable ruling in the case of a Pennsylvania mother who lost custody of her newborn to hospital doctors and a CPS caseworker in 2012.
The Mission Continues
As we head into 2017, we remain steadfastly committed to securing equal treatment for all homeschooling families.
Members can be sure that we stand ready to assist with their individual needs. This means more than just defending their rights. We also help families obtain benefits to which they are entitled, from Social Security payments to good student auto insurance discounts.
We also plan to keep spreading the word about the success of homeschooling, so that more people recognize how the movement produces good students and graduates who go on to make a positive impact in society.
And we will work for broader reforms, whether in the statehouse or federal court, in order to press toward our ultimate goal—laws in every state that guarantee equal protection for parents who teach their children at home.