Home Education Magazine
January-February 2003 - Articles and Columns
How to Speak DOEse - Theresa Willingham
Early last year, when I requested some material from the Florida Department of Education's Home Education office for our homeschool group, I noticed some inconsistencies on both the DOE website and in the homeschool packages. They were, I felt, misleading and inaccurate. Only one state support group was listed, along with disproportionate amounts of material from the Home School Legal Defense Association, creating an impression of endorsement and support of these private groups by a state agency. When I first pointed this out to the home education office, I didn't realize I was embarking on a nearly four month long email odyssey through the virtual, but convoluted halls of bureaucratic convention and apparent marriages of convenience between the DOE and other organizations.
"I think Florida is a great homeschooling state," I wrote to the office, in late January. "I have some concerns, however, about the DOE sending out materials from the Home School Legal Defense Association. It pretty much amounts to providing free - and misleading - advertising for a private law firm. If you're going to include the HSLDA in your package, I would expect that other law firms would be included as well.
"The same issue appears with the preponderance of FPEA (Florida Parent Education Association) materials. There are many, many other resources for obtaining unbiased, accurate information for homeschoolers and I'm concerned that the Department of Education's Choice Office is simply taking the easy way out by supplying Florida homeschoolers with biased and possibly unreliable - or at best, misleading - information by a small but overbearing segment of the homeschooling community. Who can I address my concerns to for some specific feedback about these issues?"
At first I received strong assurances that my impressions were wrong.
"We have placed the Home School Legal Defense Association literature in the district packets because the graphs and literature are helpful in describing profiles of some families," an office representative replied. "There is no one organization that speaks for homeschoolers, and after my years in the area I try to be careful and balanced with people who contact this office. There are a couple of Q&A in the HSLDA that I have called about before you began to email me. In no way will this office ever give preferential treatment to any individual or organization...." S he also added that she felt a telephone conversation about these issues might be more "personal" than email.
I replied that I didn't wish to be personal but rather to discuss, "with maturity and professionalism, the business of the Department of Education and the services you provide Florida residents."
I think this is vital with any government agency: Communications should never be reduced to a "personal" level, in any sense of the word. All communications should always be in writing, dated, and specifically referenced whenever possible. It's important to have records of discussions, and that proved especially valuable in this case. Correspondence should be conducted as professionally as possible, keeping in mind that your communications will be saved as well.
I didn't feel my concerns were adequately addressed, I explained, and asked if I should send my inquiries to another office. Almost immediately, I received an angry phone call from the person I'd been corresponding with. (I had given her my phone number when I had originally requested the homeschooler packages.) She was highly agitated, and proceeded to rail against what she called my "unjustified accusations." When I tried to explain I'd only meant to suggest the DOE broaden its resources, and at another point that I was sure appearances of impropriety were inadvertent, she told me not to interrupt. The tirade continued for several minutes. When she finally stopped, I remained silent for a few seconds, then asked, "May I speak now?" She angrily replied, "You can do whatever you want!"
So much for the personal touch, I thought. But I held my tongue, uttering instead some benign comments that allowed us to hang up somewhat amicably. But I was shaken and upset. And the more I thought about it the more outrageous the whole thing seemed - that a DOE employee would actually call a citizen to complain about that citizen's input regarding a government agency that ostensibly existed to assist citizens!
Two days later, I took my issues, which now included the ill behavior of a state employee, to the next couple of levels - the employee's supervisor and the Commissioner of Education's office. I forwarded both offices copies of my correspondence with the Home Ed office, as well as a description of our telephone conversation.
When I didn't hear back from either, I tried the Governor's "Citizen's Help Desk," then went in search of an oversight agency. I knew there had to be one but had no idea where to start. I typed "government watchdog" in an Internet search engine, and among the offerings was the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA). Quite a mouthful; but the organization, charged with "improv[ing] the performance and accountability of state government through reviews of state agencies and their programs," seemed to be just what I needed.
Browsing their site, I found a feedback form to "contact us with information you may have regarding apparent program inefficiencies or mismanagement with state government," completed it and sent it in.
A couple of days later, with no response from anyone, I followed up once again, with the rather plaintive subject heading "Could Someone Please Respond?" And I took a broader view of the problem, hoping to appeal to the supervisor more as a citizen, than as a homeschooler.
"My concern here," I explained, "is that the antagonistic response I received does not invite communication. It does not encourage vital citizen inquiry or participation in this important aspect of our state government. Residents should be able to make a comment to a government office or leader without fear of chastisement or intimidation, no matter how much that office may disagree with the comment. We are governed by consent - this is what I teach our children. But communication is integral to that agreement between the governing and the governed, and I feel that perhaps [the coordinator] has forgotten this foremost principle of democracy."
I said I had sent copies of all my correspondence and inquiries to multiple government agencies multiple times, and added, "I write to you now, as one person to another, for a simple human acknowledgement of the concerns that I have as a citizen of Florida. I have copies of all my correspondence, and I stand by my observation that the DOE is not communicating well, efficiently or comprehensively with Florida residents - and so far, no one has made any effort to prove me wrong. I certainly hope that you will."
I received an immediate and rather promising reply, with an apology from the DOE, and an invitation to "start again."
"As an agency we make every effort to not become merely advertisers for products, but to provide as much information to parents as possible. ...Over the years many home educators prefer not to have an association with the department and we respect their wishes. Our mission is to help where and when we have the authority," I read. "Please feel free to call me directly if I can be of assistance to you. ...If you have any other suggestions or recommendations regarding the web page on home education and how we can better serve families, please let me know."
I responded enthusiastically, acknowledging gratefully the invitation to begin again.
"I suppose the reason I believe that I have not been served well by your office is because my concerns... have been dismissed out of hand," I replied. "The reason I pointed out the impression of impropriety in the first place was because I was sure that, as you said, you don't want to be "mere advertisers" for products - including law services - and that's exactly what all the materials from the HSLDA seem to imply - that you are advertising for them. ...it doesn't seem right to solely endorse the HSLDA by providing so many of their materials - especially when the information they provide is readily available through unbiased, comprehensive federal DOE resources."
I also saw this as an opportunity to open a broader dialogue for all homeschoolers in the state.
"Perhaps you've been told that many home educators do not want an association with your office," I wrote, "but the truth is that most do not know that they CAN have an association with your office."
A week went by with no reply. I followed up once, then again. I got a brief note advising me that the office was busy but that the resources I had sent earlier would be up on the website soon. Another week went by, and I followed up once more - just a line or two asking if my previous correspondence had been received and how the website updates were progressing. I received a short, terse note advising me that the legislative session was under way and that there were many other homeschooling parents who were equally as important as I, and that I would be attended to "as soon as possible."
I was being blown off and I knew it. Perhaps they expected me to be mollified by the initial note of apology. Perhaps they assumed that I would forget to check back on the progress of the website, or that if enough time went by, I would simply give up. I did neither.
"Is there someone else to whom I should be addressing my inquiries, so that I'm not taking up your time?" I asked. "You told me, specifically, "If you have any other suggestions or recommendations regarding the web page on home education and how we can better serve families, please let me know." I responded comprehensively, politely, and with an interest in assisting in any way I can, and yet I continue to be made to feel as though I'm imposing on your office by communicating with it -- and expecting it to communicate back.
"So I'll apologize for bothering you, but will remind you that this is, indeed, our legislative session, and while I may not be among those parents lobbying for particular bills or special interests, I am among those parents whom you serve and whose interests and needs are just as important and just as deserving of respect and attention. ..."
By now my letters were lengthy with copies of previous correspondence. I ensured the DOE knew that I had copies of everything, that I was paying attention to where we were in the conversation and focused on resolving the issues I had raised in the first place. Friends who knew of this now two-month-old conversation lamented my lack of progress. "Couldn't your time be better spent elsewhere?" they asked.
But I never leave things unfinished, and my principles were at stake. The website had been incomplete for years, and the homeschool information packages were inaccurate. If I quit now, nothing would change. And I knew that things would change if I persisted, politely, pointedly, and patiently. So I did.
On Feb. 25, I received one more note from the choice office, confirming that they were indeed, the proper agency for home education issues.
With an apparent air of resignation, the letter read: "More often than not, other offices and divisions will forward correspondence and calls to us. Because the Department does not regulate or license private schools (and therefore private education) and given that home education is home based and true parent choice, there are very few program specialists in the Department that are familiar with issues that are not totally related to public education and the delivery of services as outlined in statute.
"And as you know, local school districts have at least one person assigned to respond to local home education questions and registration of students in home education. So send your correspondence to me and we will do what we can to assist you."
I sent thanks, and reiterated my inquiries about department visibility and improved relationships with the homeschooling community, HSLDA concerns and the offering of comprehensive, unbiased educational resources on the website and in the homeschool packages. I never heard back from that office again.
I continued to follow up weekly or every couple of weeks. I filed another complaint with the Governor's office, receiving a brief note that my letter would be forwarded to the Commissioner of Education's office. I replied that I had already done that and never heard back from them either, but hoped that perhaps the Governor's office could help.
After a couple of weeks of silence, I wrote the Governor's office again. I received pseudo-apology: "I am sorry that you feel that you have not been responded to adequately by the Department of Education and the Choice Office" with a promise to forward my note once more and a wish that everything would soon be resolved to my satisfaction.
Once again, I got the distinct feeling that my efforts were somehow being redirected, with smoke and mirrors to distract me from the original problem.
"Thank you for your note," I wrote back, determined to keep the focus where it belonged. "But the reason I feel that I have not been responded to adequately is because I haven't been. If you wish to apologize, apologize for the fact of the matter - that I have not been responded to adequately - and not for my "feelings" to that effect, as if the problems I've encountered communicating with the Governor's Office and the Department of Education are simply figments of my imagination. Thank you for forwarding my note again. I do appreciate it. But please understand that this needs to be resolved, not to my satisfaction, but because it's the right thing to do."
Then, just when I was getting ready to write my Congressman, I received a note from the Office for Program Policy Analysis. I had almost forgotten them.
They wrote, "We will be conducting a review of the Department in general later this year as part of the Legislature's Zero Based Budgeting initiative and will consider the input you have provided at that time." In the meantime, they added, perhaps I'd like to contact the DOE's Inspector General's Office. "Hope this is helpful."
Was it ever! I wrote to the Inspector General's office, mentioning that I had been referred by the OPPAGA and received an immediate response, inviting me to send them copies of all my correspondence with the DOE, and actually thanking me for bringing the situation to their attention. Two weeks later, on May 1, I was advised that my case had been turned over to - ta da! - the Website Master. It had only taken nearly four months to get everything to the department where it belonged in the first place, but now it was there with authority.
A week later, I received a telephone call from a conflict resolution officer at the DOE saying he would like to implement the changes. He felt the best way to include new support resources was to accept information only from the "legitimate representatives" of state and local organizations, to verify that such information was being provided fairly and with permission. To that end, he asked me to send him information for groups of which I was the legitimate representative, and he would include them on the website.
I thanked him and sent along all the information he requested. The only vagary occurred when I asked if there would be some mention on the website of how other home educators could submit information. "We could do that," he replied, implying there was no intention of doing so. So when I sent my information, I assured him that as soon as the new site was up and running, I would let other area home educators know they could now have their support groups listed.
On May 21, I received a note telling me that the new website was up. Sure enough, besides the FPEA were our LIFE of Florida group, our local LIFE chapter and our national UU Homeschoolers group. There is no invitation to submit other groups, but word is out concerning how to do so, and hopefully new groups will soon appear on the site.
It took time, and it took patience, but when I look at the DOE website and know that what I see there now I made possible, I feel good, and strong, and reassured that I can affect the world around me, simply on the strength of my convictions. And that's a very satisfying thought.
In the intervening months, communication with the Department of Education's Office of Choice, now under new administrative guidance, has improved considerably for residents. I believe a number of changes are responsible for that, not the least of which was an ongoing DOE reorganization that was taking place at the same time that I waged for website improvements and better service for homeschoolers. But I believe only continued frank and frequent communications with the DOE (and any government agency), with requests for and strong expectations of, answers when we need them, and service when we want it, will best serve participatory democracy and our individual needs as home educators.
Steps in Learning to Speak DOEse
? First, learn your way around your state Department of Education. You can find your DOE's home page at http://www.ccsso.org/seamenu.html
? Look for a Home Education or Homeschooling link on the state DOE page. If, after looking over the page, you determine that there is misleading or erroneous information on it, start at the beginning, contacting, via writing, the suggested "help" contact or administrator.
? Present your case amicably and politely, always starting with the assumption that the state's error is mere oversight and that they'll be grateful for your help. That takes a lot more than a grain of salt, I know, but at least start with this assumption. And sometimes it simply is an oversight and they'll be happy to correct it.
? I suggest waiting no more than two or three days for a reply before following up, with a dated copy of your previous correspondence. You don't need to say much, just wonder aloud if they received your first note and tell them you've attached it for their convenience. Remember that everything you say - and everything that they say -- will be public record, so be scrupulously polite, mature and professional, no matter what!
? If, after two follow ups, you've either received no response, or an insufficient response, go up to the next level, that person's supervisor. That can be a little tricky. Sometimes relevant staff will be listed right on a webpage. At other times, you'll have to do some investigating. One thing you can do is simply call your DOEs help/parent/information number and request the name of the head of a department, or the name of someone's supervisor. Often, there's an online "help desk" or "contact" address, and you can inquire there. There are also online organizational charts or directories. Again, remain polite. No one needs a long story. Just ask your question.
? After you've determined who the supervisor is, present your case again, this time with copies of previous correspondence to the other employee. Go through the same wait and follow up procedure. If you're still unsatisfied, go right to the State Superintendent or Education Commissioner and, with copies to your Governor's office, state your case once more.
? This might also be a good time to start tracking down your state's version of an oversight committee for the DOE, because at this point, if you've received no proper response to your inquiries and concerns, the issue becomes one of government ethics. In Florida, it's the DOE Inspector General's office. I had to go through an outside government oversight group to find it, and that's yet another way to locate such an agency. But usually, you can just run a search on, say, "South Carolina's Department of Education oversight" and something will pop up. In many other states, it's an Inspector General's office as well.
There is an excellent overview of oversight agencies and their roles at the US Office of Government Ethics at www.usoge.gov/home.html. If you want to contact them, you need to write or call: U.S. Office of Government Ethics, 1201 New York Ave., NW. Suite 500, Washington, DC 20005-3917, Phone: 202-208-8000 , TDD: 202-208-8025, Fax: 202-208-8037
The OGE is charged with, "The Office of Government Ethics exercises leadership in the executive branch to prevent conflicts of interest on the part of Government employees, and to resolve those conflicts of interest that do occur. In partnership with executive branch agencies and departments, OGE fosters high ethical standards for employees and strengthens the public's confidence that the Government's business is conducted with impartiality and integrity." If all else fails, this agency can probably steer you to the appropriate state agency.
Another good resource is the University of Oklahoma's list of State Law Servers at www.law.ou.edu/stateserv.html State and Local Government on the Net, at http://www.statelocalgov.net/index.cfm is a magnificent compilation of links
At the Inspection and Oversight Document Archive, at www.lib.jjay.cuny.edu/ig/ftpidx.html you can find the names and addresses of each state's oversight agency.
? Be prepared to present your case clearly and with documentation. It may seem silly to have progressed so far up the chain of command for what is probably a minor problem. But if an agency refuses to work with a citizen, then there is no other recourse than to turn to the oversight agencies in place for this reason. To do anything less is to do nothing.
© 2003 Theresa Willingham
January-February 2003 - Articles and Columns
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