March 3, 2009

Tight Budgets Translate into Better Laws for Homeschoolers

On Monday, March 2, Minnesota State Senator Gen Olsen told the standing-room-only crowd looking down into the Rotunda from all three levels that she was proud of them.

“I stand here today as a public school teacher, with no children of my own, to tell you how proud I am of your commitment to your children.” Senator Olsen is a longtime supporter of homeschoolers in Minnesota.

She and State Representative Marsha Swails have co-authored groundbreaking legislation that will make Minnesota even friendlier to homeschoolers. Representative Swails, also a public school teacher, told the crowd she was pleased to support them. “As a public school teacher, I truly appreciate the work that you do every day to teach your children. Homeschoolers are a very important part of the fabric of our Minnesota community.”

The bills are S.F. 846 and H.F. 1037, the “Homeschool Mandates Reduction Act”. A hearing on the bills is scheduled for 8:30 a.m., March 5, in the basement of the State Office Building in St. Paul.

The day opened with prayer and the national anthem sung by homeschooled sisters. MACHE Board President and Pastor David Watkins then thanked the crowd for attending. “Your presence here is a testimony to your commitment to your families. Thank you for blessing us with your presence.”

Minnesota Association of Christian Home Educator’s board member, attorney and legislative liaison, John Tuma, told the crowd that the mandate reduction bill was “win-win” piece of legislation. The former state representative awarded the co-authors of the bill with certificates of appreciation.

“At a time when the state is facing its most serious budget cuts ever, there was talk among public school officials for a desire to reduce the amount of bureaucracy homeschoolers create. I went to Senator Olsen and Representative Swails with a piece of legislation that reduces mandates on public school officials and dramatically improves Minnesota’s homeschool law.”

Tuma praised HSLDA as a partner in developing the legislation. “With Mike Donnelly’s help we have been able to craft a comprehensive piece of legislation that will make Minnesota’s homeschool law even better. We’re so pleased to have a strong partnership with HSLDA.”

Donnelly, an HSLDA staff attorney, returned the compliment. “You have one of the best state homeschool organizations in the country. And your board members are outstanding!” As the crowd applauded, Donnelly went on, “I’ve been to three capitols in the last three weeks, and I’ve seen thousands of homeschoolers turning out to demonstrate over legislation. Here in Minnesota, it’s great to see so many families with their children here to put a face to this movement and to ask their legislators for the freedom they’ve earned. Thank you for partnering with us at HSLDA and MACHE to advance homeschooling; we couldn’t do it without you.”

MACHE’s approaching its legislature during a time of budget cuts is a strategy that may pay off in other states where high regulation imposes a fiscal burden.

In Vermont, for example, some have suggested that its own homeschool structure should be examined. The state has about 2,000 homeschooled students but has a full-time staff of three people to attend to the bureaucracy. Vermont has one of the country’s more burdensome laws for homeschoolers. This year HSLDA has worked with nearly a dozen families who were summoned for hearings with state officials. HSLDA was able to get one of those hearings dismissed and settle most of the others. One family may have to go to a full hearing to defend their right to homeschool.

A negative outcome at these hearings can result in serious repercussions. Families can be barred from enrolling their children in home study until the end of the following year. The Vermont Supreme Court is the only court of appeal for aggrieved homeschool families who lose at a hearing.

As hundreds of Minnesota homeschoolers visited their legislators to win support for the homeschool mandate reduction bill, Tuma was working to make sure that other interest groups were on board. Tuma has been proactive in seeking the support of interested organizations, including the state school boards association and the state superintendent’s association. Tuma also met with officials from the Department of Public Safety to make sure that language dealing with the reporting of immunizations would work.

“All of these groups know that homeschoolers are doing a great job in educating Minnesota students,” Tuma said, “And with the budgets the way they are, they are looking for any way they can to save money and effort. This is just a common sense bill that will help them with that objective.”

It doesn’t hurt that homeschoolers are delivering hard dollars.

The non-public schools assistance program provides up to $77 per student for in-kind material support (mostly books) from public schools. With hundreds of thousands in available funds, the program comes with lots of paperwork and strings attached. It also creates a major drag on public school officials who manage the paperwork.

Tuma told the crowd that homeschoolers may have to step up to help those who rely on the aid. “Christians should be helping other homeschoolers in need,” Tuma said. “Instead of a government program, we should extend a helping hand. HSLDA’s Home School Foundation has a number of programs to help homeschooling families in need. And with the current tax credit, homeschoolers need to be able to go with more than just a request for less regulation to make sure that this bill is a success.”

The mandate reduction bill would require that families only notify when they start homeschooling or if they move. Parents would no longer have to obtain a superintendent’s signature for work permits or driver’s education. The bill would also reduce the amount of paperwork all homeschooling families would have to provide. And the proposal eliminates an archaic provision that allows superintendents to make an on-site visit. This provision is rarely enforced, and the current bill eliminates it entirely.

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