August 18, 2003

Massachusetts Protects Homeschool Privacy

A tiny group of homeschoolers in a small town in Massachusetts has won a major victory against a hostile superintendent. Richard Bergeron, principal/superintendent of the Boxborough Public Schools, spent much of the last year trying to force families in his district to report to the school district three times each year. He insisted that families turn in a written home education proposal by March 1st if they wish to homeschool the next September. He used private and confidential materials from one family to tell other families what he expected their reporting to look like. He prevented one single mother from homeschooling in the district last year, and threatened others with rejection unless they complied with his demands. Despite his fierce opposition, however, the Boxborough School Committee just adopted a new homeschool policy that gives homeschoolers virtually everything they were asking for.

One reason this superintendent may have been so fiercely opposed to homeschooling was the surprising exodus of children from his school. Boxborough only has approximately 600 students in their public schools, and 8 children have been removed to homeschool in the elementary level since September 2001. Many of the families withdrew their children because Boxborough offers nothing special for gifted children, and homeschooling provides an excellent opportunity for children who are bored in traditional classrooms. As more and more children abandoned ship, some form of backlash was probably inevitable. Fortunately, the school committee protected the rights of homeschoolers before HSLDA was forced to file a federal civil rights suit.

Under Massachusetts law, a school district must approve a homeschool program if the parents demonstrate that the instruction in the home will equal in "thoroughness, efficiency, and the progress made therein" that in the local public school in the same town. While the initial burden of proof is upon the parents, the burden shifts if the school district refuses to approve the program. In that case, it is up to the school to prove that the homeschool is worse than the local public school. Since the children who were being taken out of the Boxborough Public Schools so that they could work at a more advanced level, it would be impossible for the public school to prevail in a legal action. A school that systematically refuses to approve gifted programs for homeschoolers would be systematically violating constitutionally protected rights, with severe legal consequences. Superintendent Bergeron was not willing to change his practice just because he might get the district sued. The school committee, however, voluntarily changed school to better serve homeschoolers.

According to Boxborough homeschoolers, the school committee was wonderfully responsive to their concerns. The five members of the board took time to listen to homeschool concerns, review current procedures, and draft a new policy with the help of homeschool families. The final vote was 3 in favor of the policy with 2 abstentions. Superintendent Bergeron strongly opposed the new policy to the last. Fortunately, homeschoolers in Boxborough have their rights and responsibilities clearly spelled out in a document that was drafted with the consent of the governed. Homeschoolers have earned their liberty in Boxborough.