Homeschooling records serve two separate and very different purposes. One is to meet our family's personal needs and wishes. Personal records include whatever we want to remember. They show how homeschooling is working for our family, help us learn to trust our children and ourselves, offer reassurance and perspective when we have doubts, and provide raw material when we need or want to create credentials.
Second, some of us also need to submit records to someone outside our family. Laws in our state may require that homeschoolers report to the state at regular intervals. Or our homeschool may come under investigation by social services or some other agency, although this is very rare. Or we may be involved in a custody dispute.
Although there may be some overlap, basically we need different records for these two purposes. Records we keep for our own personal use are likely to be inappropriate for public officials, and records we keep for official use are unlikely to be all our family wants to have.
Each family needs to decide what kinds of personal records will best serve their approach to education and their unique situation. These personal records may have a strong impact on individual families, but they generally have little effect on other homeschoolers. However, the records we give to the state, either as part of regular reports required by law or in response to a legal challenge, can affect other homeschoolers and their ability to maintain their homeschooling freedoms. When we are careful to give to the state only the minimum needed, we are making an important contribution to maintaining homeschooling freedoms for ourselves and others. When we give the state more records and reports than are required by law or are necessary to deal with a legal challenge, we threaten the homeschooling freedoms of our family and others.
The preceding "Taking Charge" column explored reasons for keeping personal homeschooling records and ways of doing so that support learning and do not interfere with it. (See Home Education Magazine, Sept.-Oct., 1998.)
This column discusses reasons why it is often tempting to just give officials whatever information they ask for along with reasons why simply surrendering information is NOT a good idea. An exploration of how officials think is then followed by general principles for responding to officials in ways that will maintain our homeschooling freedoms.
Why It Is Often Tempting to Simply Comply With Officials' Requests
As homeschoolers we may be asked or ordered to submit homeschooling records to officials for one of two basic reasons.
(1) Officials may claim that state law or regulations require that we submit reports or records. Such requirements theoretically apply to all homeschoolers in our state or local jurisdiction, although as with many other laws, officials may insist that some homeschoolers submit detailed reports while virtually ignoring other homeschoolers.
(2) Our individual homeschool may be challenged by officials demanding records or other evidence that we are educating our children. These demands may occur for reasons such as:
* A neighbor, relative, or acquaintance has reported us to school officials or social services because they don't understand or agree with our decision to homeschool or because they are concerned about our children's educations.
* We are unfortunate enough to live in a school district where officials are suspicious of homeschoolers and are threatening and intimidating them.
* We are involved in divorce proceedings or a custody dispute in which our homeschooling is being challenged, and the court has ordered us to provide evidence that our children are at or above grade level.
Regardless of the reason, when an official requests or demands our records, our initial response may be to think we should gather together as many records as possible and turn them in. This is not surprising. It may help us to stop, think, and plan a more effective response if we understand some of the reasons we are tempted to simply surrender our records. Among the possibilities:
* We may want to just take care of the request as quickly as possible so we can get on with our lives.
* Our natural impulse and preference may be to cooperate with others whenever possible . In addition, we may have been trained and conditioned to obey authorities, especially when we feel intimidated or threatened. If, for example, a police officer pulled us over for speeding, we would give him or her our drivers license and then discuss the matter later, in court, if we hadn't been speeding. So we may assume that we have little choice in dealing with school officials and that if they ask for our records, we have to surrender them.
* As homeschoolers, we are used to people being surprised and sometimes critical when they hear that we are homeschooling. We may assume that officials are asking for our records because they suspect that our children are not being educated and they are looking for evidence to support their suspicion. We may feel we have to submit our records to correct their misunderstanding.
* We may be proud of our homeschooling and want to share our enthusiasm, perhaps even show off a bit to an audience of educators and other officials who will, we feel confident, be impressed with what we are doing. We may be convinced that if officials only knew more about homeschooling, they would realize that it's a good way to educate children and would stop bothering us. We may also welcome the opportunity to show people who have criticized or challenged us that our homeschooling is going well.
* As part of our attempts to protect our families from interference or harassment by officials, it may seem that if we give officials everything they request and perhaps even more than they have requested, they will then leave us alone. However, refusing to cooperate with excessive demands from officials actually contributes more to our long-term security because we are affirming and maintaining our rights as parents and as homeschoolers.
* We may have worked hard on our records and would like to use them. We may wish that we could get public recognition for what we and our children are doing.
* We may think it would be reassuring if we described our homeschool to professional educators and they then told us that we were doing a good job. However, very few professional educators understand homeschooling well enough to be able to give this kind of meaningful assessment.
Why Simply Submitting Our Records Is Not a Good Idea
Although it may be very tempting to simply give officials the records they demand, homeschoolers have found repeatedly that it works much better to give serious thought to such demands and consider other ways of responding. Among the reasons:
* As parents we are responsible for our children's upbringing and education. When we think seriously about how we will respond to officials instead of just automatically doing what they demand, we are exercising our responsibilities for our family rather than surrendering them to the state.
* Most school officials have little knowledge or understanding of homeschooling. Often the more information we provide them, the more they question, criticize, and challenge what we are doing. For example, suppose we volunteer information about an innovative approach to art that we find exciting. Officials who had not even considered asking about art may suddenly become very concerned about it and then wonder how we are approaching other areas of study as well. Parents who have tried cooperating with officials generally find that rather than being pleased and satisfied, officials become more critical and suspicious, perhaps feel threatened, and increase their demands.
* By contrast, parents who have refused to give officials information that they do not have legal authority to demand usually find that the officials give up their demands surprisingly quickly. Sometimes officials do not have accurate information about the law until we give it to them. Sometimes they have been misinformed by other officials. Whatever the reason, they often do not pursue their demands.
* Recent developments make it more important than ever that we protect our children's privacy. Use of computers, increasing collaboration among government agencies and exchange of information about individuals, and proposals for a national registry for immunization and a national data base on personal health records threaten to give the government the ability to store and release large amounts of information about individuals. Much more is at stake than simply not embarrassing our children. Their futures will be influenced by our ability and willingness to control the information about them that is recorded and stored. Information that is interpreted to indicate health problems, academic deficiencies, learning disabilities, or emotional difficulties could reduce their chances of getting into college, getting certain jobs, etc.
* Actions such as submitting records that are not required by law or that exceed the minimum requirements of the law set precedents that can work against us and other homeschoolers. If we attempt to cooperate with officials by voluntarily giving them extra records, we may find that the next year they require such records of us and other homeschoolers, claiming that their demand is reasonable because homeschoolers like us have voluntarily submitted such records in the past. Just because we have records does not mean that we have to release them or that state or school officials have the right to demand them.
* When we submit records for officials to review, we are promoting the kind of thinking that supports outcome-based education (OBE) and supporting the idea that the state is responsible for deciding what knowledge, skills, and abilities children should acquire and for deciding whether children have acquired them.
Understanding the Thinking of School Officials
Communicating with other people is often easier when we have some understanding of their perspectives, goals, and experiences, especially if our thinking differs from theirs. Understanding the way many officials think and operate helps us deal with them. Often when we put ourselves in their shoes, we find ways of dealing with them that we might not have thought of otherwise and that make communicating with them easier than we expected.
* School officials' perspective on the world is based their experience living in a bureaucracy where they themselves have to comply with a lot of rules and regulations. "Employees are limited to one personal phone call, no longer than 90 seconds, each working day." "Report C-333 is due on the third Wednesday of every odd month." "You are allowed two personal leave days each calendar year, for which you must fill out a 'Request for Time' form at least 10 working days in advance except in emergencies." Working in this kind of environment affects the way officials expect the world to work and parents and students to act and react.
* Officials pay most attention to things they have to deal with on a daily basis, that is, full-time public school students. Officials often know little about homeschooling and the laws and regulations that apply to it. Even more serious, the little that officials do know is often inaccurate. It is not surprising that officials with careers in public education and without personal experience with homeschooling, assume that homeschools should have curriculums, approaches to learning, tests, and records similar to those of public schools. Often officials simply have not stopped to think about how different homeschools are from conventional schools in terms the number of students they have, the opportunities they provide for hands-on learning, the motivation children have for learning, and many other factors.
In addition, some of officials' misinformation comes from supervisors and co-workers. As busy people whose main focus is on other matters, many officials simply accept what they are told rather than checking on the law themselves. Misinformation also spreads among officials because those most likely to be talking are those who are fearful of or opposed to homeschooling. Officials who don't feel strongly about homeschooling are unlikely to spend much time or energy on it.
* As public officials in a society where most people respect authority, officials are accustomed to having their word and authority taken seriously. They expect to be able to say most anything to parents and students and have them do what they are told because officials don't recognize parents and students as having power or authority in schools.
Because of this, most officials are surprised if parents or students take a position that differs from theirs or question, challenge, or counter what they have said. Partly as a result of their surprise, officials often give up on the demands they have made surprisingly quickly. They may even listen carefully and decide to change their minds, but often the best we can do is to get them to realize that the situation is gray rather than black and white and to quietly abandon their demands. It is usually best to leave things at that point and not try to force officials to change their minds or state definitely that we are right. If we do try to force them, they will probably have to check with their supervisors and their supervisors' supervisors. Then pretty soon we are involved in an escalated issue instead of an unspoken understanding that "You are probably right or at least I don't want to have to deal with this issue any more, so I'm just dropping it."
By the way, this idea of learning to live with ambiguity when officials are willing to just let a matter drop and leave us alone (instead of our trying to force everything to be written out in black and white and get laws that supposedly protect our freedom) is The reasons why lawyership simply doesn't work. Lawyership is relying on lawyers and the courts to protect our basic freedoms rather than taking responsibility for them ourselves. Of course, it helps to have reasonable laws, or at least not to have unreasonable laws. But the most reasonable law doesn't do any good unless citizens understand it and insist that officials honor in their actions the freedoms that the laws and constitution provide. As homeschoolers have been demonstrating for years, we can have more freedom to homeschool as we choose when we take responsibility for our own lives and educations and live with ambiguity than we can when we insist on having a rule or law in black and white. When we try to force the issue and get definite rules or laws, the biases of our culture and the power that is held by the power centers (including the educational establishment) undo us, and we usually end up with laws that give the state authority over homeschooling.
* It also helps if we understand and remember that officials haven't been in positions to take risks themselves. They don't have the power to make significant discretionary decisions or to grant exceptions to rules. Although they do have the seemingly enormous power of treating students and parents as lesser beings in their environment, personally they don't have a sense of having real power and being able to take risks. In other words, they have the power of "no," but they don't have the power of "yes."
General Principles for Dealing with Officials
Once we understand how officials tend to think, we begin to understand how much choice we have in deciding how we will respond to demands from officials for our records, even when state law requires regular reports from homeschoolers. Among the possibilities:
* We can (and should) read and interpret the law ourselves. We can figure out a reasonable interpretation that requires that we submit as little information to officials as possible. In doing so, we can (and should) think of broad definitions for terms that are used and not limit ourselves to conventional definitions.
For example, state laws sometimes require that homeschoolers have a curriculum. This does not mean that homeschoolers have to choose one similar to those used in conventional schools. A curriculum is an educational plan, and as homeschoolers we can choose a plan that will meet our children's needs, whether or not it is similar to those used in conventional schools.
As another example, if the law requires that homeschooled children receive "875 hours of instruction per year," they do not have to spend 875 hours sitting at the kitchen table while someone teaches them or they fill in worksheets. Children in conventional schools receive "instruction" through videos, work on computers, field trips, group projects, hands-on experiences, etc., so homeschooling families can certainly count a wide range of experiences as part of their hours of instruction.
* We can have as our goal to do the minimum possible so we can maintain as much homeschooling freedom as possible. We can ask ourselves repeatedly, "Is there any way I could reasonably give the state less information than I am now giving?" As explained above, because officials work in a bureaucratic world, they tend to be more concerned about seeing that forms and reports are filed than they are about the content of these forms and reports.
* We can base the information that we submit on the fact that laws require compulsory school attendance but they do not require compulsory education. This is a critical distinction that we can often use to make our case. Compulsory school attendance laws require that children attend school, but they do not require that children become educated while they are attending school or prove that they are educated. Therefore, for homeschoolers to comply with compulsory school attendance laws, we simply have to show that our children are attending a homeschool. We do not have to submit our curriculum for review and approval by state officials (unless the homeschooling law in our state specifically requires this), and we do not have to submit portfolios, test scores, or other "proof" that our children are learning (again, unless state law specifically requires such information).
Homeschoolers who live in states that do not have such specific requirements can often deal with demands from officials by giving them a copy (not the original) of our attendance record. This can be a simple chart that indicates the days our homeschool is in session (365 days a year for some families) and the children who are "present" each day. The official then has evidence that we are complying with the compulsory school attendance law and a piece of paper to put into the file. No further discussion or information may be needed.
* If officials insist that we do something, we can ask them to give us a copy of the statute that requires such action. Sometime officials cannot find a statute. If a statue does exist, sometimes we can come up with a reasonable interpretation that does not require us to do what the official originally demanded.
* We can remember not to ask school officials for information about homeschooling laws and regulations. We homeschoolers almost always know more about homeschooling and about homeschooling laws than they do. Perhaps even more important, officials will inevitably interpret the laws from their experience and perspective as school officials while our experience and perspective as homeschoolers allow us to understand the law in ways that break the conventional school mind set and mold.
* We can be alert for demands from officials that exceed the authority they have been given by statue, even in small ways. For example, they may ask for our children's birth dates, social security numbers, immunization records, etc. even though this information is not required by law. Sometimes they do this deliberately to increase their power and authority. Sometimes they do it with what they view as good intentions, to increase their ability to carry out some task. Sometimes they do not understand the law clearly themselves or perhaps have been misinformed by superiors. Whatever the reason, as homeschoolers we have to be alert and refuse to comply with requests that exceed the authority that officials have been given by statute. No one else will do this for us; we have to take responsibility ourselves. If we don't refuse such requests, we will lose our freedom because people will begin to assume that officials have more authority than they actually have.
* Working with other homeschoolers can be an enormous help. We can work together through inclusive state-wide grassroots organizations. Local support groups can organize committees to discuss legal requirements and ways homeschoolers can minimize the amount of information they submit. This could be a discussion topic at a regular meeting, a workshop at a conference, a topic covered in depth in a newsletter, etc.
* It does not work to try to convince officials that homeschooling is a good idea by providing more information than is required. This sets dangerous precedents. In the future, we and other homeschoolers may be expected to provide this much detailed information. In addition, it often leads to more doubts, questions, and challenges from officials.
* Civil disobedience, refusing to comply with a statute that our principles and conscience will not allow us to obey, is an alternative that may lead us to refuse to give information to officials.
Incidentally, as a kind of a fringe benefit, many homeschoolers find that what they learn from dealing with officials concerning homeschooling serves them well in other areas of their lives, as they deal with medical personnel, bank officials, personnel in large corporations and government agencies, etc.
Responding When Our Individual Homeschool Is Challenged
Homeschooling records may be demanded from some of us as part of an investigation of our family by social services, because our local school district is harassing homeschoolers, or because we are involved in a custody dispute. In such a situation, when we are first contacted, we can try to gain some time so we can figure out how to respond. If someone calls us or appears at our door, we can calmly explain that we are busy homeschooling our children and will call them back. We can take the time we need to figure out how to respond to a letter or an message on our answering machine. This lets us review the law, consult appropriate sections of homeschooling manuals and handbooks, and contact other homeschoolers, especially in our school district or state, for suggestions.
A balanced approach works best in response to the first contact. On one hand, to avoid raising additional questions and setting precedents, it is good to give as little information as possible, as discussed above. On the other hand, sometimes we can avoid additional investigation or at least shorten it by providing enough of the right kind of information in our first response.
Sometimes, especially when officials are investigating a complaint from a member of the general public, they need some kind of report or at least a piece of paper to put in their files. Sometimes we can suggest something that is acceptable to both us and them. A good place to start is the attendance records discussed above, accompanied by an explanation that the law requires compulsory attendance, not compulsory education.
Recording Contacts With Public Officials
A record of contacts we have with officials is important in planning our response, keeping officials honest and respectful of our abilities and awareness of the importance of written records, and sharing our concerns with others so they can learn from our experience and possibly assist us. Such records can be written notes, tape recordings, etc. They should be made as soon as possible, ideally while we are talking with the official. We can write down key phrases the official uses and our responses during a phone conversation or a face-to-face discussion and then make more complete notes later. Tape recordings can be made of formal meetings. Begin the tape by having people identify themselves and acknowledge their awareness that a recording is being made.
Among the important points to record:
* Date, time, place, type of contact (letter, phone call, unannounced personal visit, scheduled meeting, etc.).
* Name of official or officials and their titles and/or positions.
* Specific request or demand. (We may want to ask the official to repeat this, if necessary, so we can write down the exact words.)
* Law or regulation that the official claims is the basis for the request or demand.
* What was said by whom and what, if anything, we have agreed to do. Include as much detail as possible, using the direct quotes from the speakers whenever possible.
As homeschoolers, we each need to decide what kind of records we will keep for our family's use. However, before we submit homeschooling records to public officials, we should consider the implications that our actions will have for our family and other homeschoolers. If we refuse to submit more than the minimum required by state law, we are reaffirming our responsibility for our children's education, helping to prevent the state from increasing its power and authority, and helping to maintain homeschooling freedoms and rights. But if we submit more than the minimum, we set a precedent that will enable school officials to demand more of us and other homeschoolers in the future and give the state more power and authority in education at the expense of parents' and families' rights and responsibilities.
© 1998, Larry and Susan Kaseman
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