Home Education Magazine
March-April 2003 - Articles and Columns
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
Use 'Em or Lose 'Em: Maintaining Reasonable Homeschooling Laws
When the media recently reported that public officials in California and Illinois were challenging parents' right to homeschool, some homeschoolers wondered if they would be next. In fact, such challenges have been occurring since we homeschoolers showed up on public officials' radar screens. They will continue to occur. We need to be prepared to respond. Fortunately, such preparation is not difficult or expensive. But being unprepared could be very expensive in time and energy required and rights and freedoms lost. This column will discuss how to prepare and respond.
What Has Happened in Illinois and California
The 37 regional public school superintendents in Illinois decided homeschoolers in his three-county region needed to demonstrate that they were actually homeschooling (even though he lacked authority to do so). According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, Nov. 25, 2002, "[The superintendent] said he sends a truant officer out to homes, usually in response to outside complaints, looking for documents such as lesson plans, textbooks and attendance records." At least 22 families have been contacted, some receiving letters summoning them to "pretrial hearings," and some receiving threats that their children would be taken away. In at least one case, a truant officer delivered a letter in person, accompanied by police cars with lights flashing and sirens sounding. NThe pretrial hearings has resulted in families being brought to a hearing or court.
Economics may be influencing the superintendent's behavior. Seven major corporations have moved out of his territory recently, decreasing both the tax base and student enrollment. Especially in times of economic difficulty, we homeschoolers can expect to sometimes be scapegoats for officials concerned about money since they blame declining enrollments and reduced funding on homeschoolers who are not attending the public schools.
Homeschoolers in California recently faced a challenge that required that they understand the law and their rights. Families who want to homeschool in California can proceed in several different ways. The California State Department of Education is apparently trying to eliminate one of those options. It has once again stated its opinion that homeschoolers who declare their schools to be private schools by filing the R4 Private School Affidavit are outside the law. Some media sources, evidently looking for controversy and realizing that homeschooling is a "hot topic," seized on this and reported that homeschooling in California is "illegal." However, the Department has issued similar statements in the past, and their claim is no more accurate today. Many families continue to file R4 forms and homeschool legally and successfully.
Why Officials Challenge Homeschoolers
It is not unusual for public officials to exceed the authority they have been given by the statutes in dealing with many people, not just homeschoolers. Sometimes officials have been misinformed by their superiors or co-workers. Sometimes their commitment to their work leads them to overstep their limits. Sometimes they want to increase their power, authority, and/or budgets. Officials can frequently get away with exceeding their authority because many people either don't realize that they could protest and stop the officials or they don't know how to.
When dealing with school officials, it helps to remember they are acting on behalf of the public school system, not homeschoolers. They rely on public schools for jobs, income, and prestige. They seldom understand homeschooling or have any basis for evaluating homeschools or helping us improve. Some school officials are eager to get private school students, including homeschoolers, into public schools so they can increase their enrollments, budgets, and power.
Developing a Homeschooling Perspective on Statutes
We can and should rely on interpretations of statutes that make sense to us and other homeschoolers, not on interpretations presented by state departments of education, school officials, or other so-called "experts." As homeschoolers, we know more about homeschooling, have experience with it, are more familiar with pertinent statutes, and are in a better position to interpret them than public officials. Since the 1980s, homeschoolers and public officials have differed on a number of points. On many of these, the officials have sooner or later conceded that the homeschoolers were correct by changing the way they deal with homeschoolers (and not through formal announcements, legislation, or court cases).
Homeschoolers who do not know their rights are likely to accept and pass on false claims about what the law is. This is one way rights are lost. Think what would happen if homeschoolers in California and other states simply accepted the state's and the media' pronouncements that homeschooling is illegal.
Consider this example of homeschoolers interpreting statutes. Wisconsin's homeschooling statute requires that parents provide "875 hours of instruction" per year, but it does not define "instruction." When it was passed in 1984, homeschoolers working together through a statewide inclusive grassroots organization seized the initiative. They declared that since instruction in public schools includes videos, hands-on learning, field trips, work-study programs, independent study during study halls, etc., such activities could also be considered "instruction" in homeschools. Therefore, homeschoolers are no more required to sit at their desks for 875 hours a year than are students in public schools. This undoubtedly would not have been the interpretation of public school officials, had they been asked.
The Importance of Acting Promptly and Decisively
It is very important that we know our legal rights and act promptly on our own behalf to stop officials, rather than letting them get up a head of steam and then hoping we can find a lawyer or someone else to bail us out. If we don't know what the law requires and what our rights are, we're more likely to allow people to come in our home, interview us, review our curriculum, and investigate our homeschool. Things we say might give officials who did not have a solid basis for investigating our homeschool when they first contacted us a new or different idea for why or how they should challenge us.
For example, suppose an official wonders if homeschoolers get enough reading and math and demands that a family submit their curriculum for review and approval, even though this is not required by statute in their state. Suppose the family does not know what the statutes require, so they comply. Eager to stay out of trouble, they include art, music, and health. Although the official had not eventhought about health, he now becomes concerned because the family is not approaching health the way public schools do, perhaps because they disagree with the values in the public schools' health curriculum. The official might require them to change to a curriculum similar to the public schools'. The official would then have even more control and authority over the family's homeschool, in excess of the authority he had been given by statute. This could have been avoided if the family had explained to the official that they were not legally required to submit their curriculum for review and approval and had refused to do so. The official would not have had legal recourse since he was exceeding the authority he had been given by statute.
What We Can (and Really Should) Do
? We should know what the statutes (plus regulations, if any) in our state and local school district require. This is actually a two step process. We need to get a copy of the statutes themselves, and we need to interpret them from a homeschooling perspective. We should have a copy of the laws and regulations and a reasonable interpretation of them readily available in our homes for quick reference and to show to officials if we are challenged.
The best source is knowledgeable, experienced homeschooling parents who live in our state. If there is a statewide grassroots homeschooling organization formed and run by such parents, both the text of the statutes and a reasonable interpretation are likely to be available from them.
Legal interpretations offered by national homeschool organizations often misrepresent the homeschooling statutes and are not recommended as a source of legal information or as a place to get help in dealing with challenges to our homeschools. Also, lists on the Internet or in books that outline requirements in each state are often unsatisfactory. It is difficult (if not impossible) to read a statute or regulation and know what it means in reality without also knowing a good bit about the political climate of the state from which it comes, the history and intent of the statute, etc. Therefore, information from such sources can be misleading and omit essential details and nuances that we can get from contacting experienced homeschoolers. Finding out, for example, that statutes in a given state require that homeschoolers "have a curriculum" is not helpful unless you also know whether curriculums must be submitted to public school officials for review and approval, what types of curriculums are generally accepted, the minimum amount of information that homeschoolers have successfully submitted to the state or school district, etc.
? We can be prepared to respond quickly and decisively if we are challenged. If we receive a phone call or an official comes to the door and requests or demands something that we are not required to provide in our state, we can explain that we know what the law requires, that we are in full compliance with the law, and that the official's request exceeds the requirements of the law. Note that is not enough to simply say to an official, "You can't come in our house" or "I don't have to do that." We need to have a clear basis for saying "No" in order to convince ourselves that we are right and to demonstrate to officials that we know what we are talking about, are strong, and are not going to be easy marks. It is much better to act decisively when we are first challenged than to think that we could always call a lawyer or an expert or a homeschooling organization if we are challenged.
If we are caught off guard when an official calls or appears at our door and are not sure what to say, we can explain that we are busy homeschooling our children and arrange a more convenient time to talk with the official.
It may be very tempting to "cooperate" with officials' requests or demands, perhaps because we think we can resolve the matter quickly and avoid getting into trouble, especially if we know we are doing a good job of homeschooling. However, such action actually often takes more time and creates more problems. Officials whose demands are complied with often respond by demanding more. In addition, our compliance sets precedents that we and other homeschoolers will be expected to comply with in the future. So refusing to comply with demands that exceed the law usually takes less time and energy in the long run.
Refusing to comply with demands that exceed the law is often much easier than one might expect. Officials are generally surprised and caught off guard, since most non-homeschoolers comply with officials' demands and don't ask questions or raise objections. This means that officials don't have standard procedures to enforce their demands. When someone stands up to them, particularly someone who has copies of statutes and regulations and obviously knows what they're talking about, officials generally back down or quietly let the matter drop. Perhaps they realize they were wrong. Perhaps they don't know what to do and decide to deal instead with someone who is easier to handle.
? We can work to ensure that as many homeschoolers as possible know their rights and responsibilities under the statutes in our state and are prepared to act if challenged. The most effective ways to do this is through statewide grassroots inclusive homeschooling organizations that are founded and run by experienced homeschoolers in our state. We can support such organizations by being members, participating in conferences and other activities, encouraging other homeschoolers to become involved, making donations, etc. Many homeschoolers consider the time and money they give to such organizations each year The most important investments in their family's homeschooling present and future.
Homeschooling rights and responsibilities have been and will continue to be challenged by public officials who are misinformed or misunderstand statutes and regulations, who want to increase their power and authority over homeschoolers, who mistakenly think they are responsible for all the children in their district, or who want to get homeschoolers back into the public schools. To maintain our homeschooling freedoms, we need to know what the statutes in our state require and what they don't require and be prepared to refuse to comply with demands from officials that exceed what is required by statute.
© 2003 Larry and Susan Kaseman
March-April 2003 - Articles and Columns
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