LAUREL, Md. — A Maryland mother who was charged with 83 counts of truancy for refusing to submit her Catholic home-school curriculum to public-school authorities has agreed to a settlement that puts her criminal case on hold while she seeks state approval of the program.
Mary Simmons, who with her husband, John Stafford, is home schooling the couple's oldest child, a 6-year-old girl, had resisted requirements that their curriculum be submitted to the Howard County Public School System.
The couple said their child did not belong to the state and cited Catholic teaching that parents have the primary responsibility for the education of their children.
Stafford and Simmons, who have two other children, have been teaching their 6-year-old at home using the Our Lady of the Rosary program based in Bardstown, Ky., while she is on a parish school waiting list.
Stafford, a retired administrative law judge who is considering a run for governor of Maryland, had said before the settlement was reached that he objected to the “government monopoly school system.”
The Church, Stafford said, has taught consistently that parents have total responsibility for their children, particularly in the area of education.
“This directly violates our religious liberty under the First Amendment and our rights of conscience as Catholics.” He was not charged because school officials said they had no communication with him.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The state has a responsibility for its citizens’ well-being,” but “may not legitimately usurp the initiative of spouses, who have the primary responsibility for the procreation and education of their children” (No. 2372).
On May 24, the day before Simmons was to have appeared in a Maryland criminal court on truancy charges, she accepted an offer to postpone prosecution while she seeks approval through the state for her family's home-instruction program.
According to terms of the settlement, which was negotiated by Scott Somerville of the Home School Legal Defense Association and a Howard County assistant state's attorney, the charges against Simmons will be dropped as soon as the Maryland Department of Education recognizes the program the family is using.
Simmons and Stafford plan to ask the state board of education to approve the Our Lady of the Rosary program as well as several other home-school programs, including Seton Home Study and Kolbe Academy. They also will ask the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Baltimore to consider starting a program under his office.
Miki Hill of the National Association of Catholic Home Educators said the superintendent already is exploring that possibility, which would enable Catholic home-schoolers to bypass curriculum reviews by public-school officials. Hill said the head of the archdiocese, Cardinal William Keeler, has been a leader in supporting the Catholic home-schooling movement.
Somerville of the Home School Legal Defense Association said home-schooling parents in Maryland can avoid review by using a program that already has been approved by the state or is supervised by a state-certified nonpublic school. However, he said, none of the state-approved programs is Catholic and no recognized Catholic school in Maryland is supervising home schoolers.
Parish School Supervision?
“I wish that some of the parish schools in Maryland would supervise home-school programs,” said Somerville, who is Protestant. “Although there are hundreds of Protestant schools that will, there is no recognized Catholic school in Maryland that will supervise home schoolers.”
Likewise, Somerville said, none of the three most reputable national Catholic home-schooling programs in the country is on the Maryland Department of Education approved list.
The Stafford-Simmons case has caused some concern among Catholic home schoolers in Maryland, said Hill, a Howard County resident who designed her family's home-school program and has complied with the local system requirements. She said her own experience with the Howard County Schools has been largely positive.
Hill said that of the nearly 2 million home-schooled children nationwide, about 2% are Catholic. Studies show that home-taught students consistently outperform their peers in conventional schools in such academic subjects as reading, language, and math.
Stafford said that after school officials inquired about the education of their daughter late last year, his wife sent in the required forms stating their intent to teach her at home. But the couple declined to submit their program to the school system. Stafford said school officials were free to review the program on their own by obtaining materials from Our Lady of the Rosary.
Betsy Rice, resource pupil personnel worker for the Howard County Schools, said if the couple had submitted to a simple review lasting 15 to 20 minutes, their program likely would have been approved. “They tell us what they're doing and we record it . . . We just have to know what [they're] doing; otherwise we have to put that child as truant.”
Rice said the review insures that the parents’ intent is to home school the child. “The only thing we look at is does the person have a planned program. They have to have something that says they're doing something.”
Patti Caplan, a Howard County schools spokesman, said the central issue in the Simmons-Stafford case was the school system's responsibility to insure that children are being educated. “And that's all we're concerned about. We're not concerned about the content of any curriculum. There is no intention on anybody's part to get into making judgements about religious-based education.”
Rice said the 45,000-student Howard County School System works with about 800 home-schooled children, many of whom are taught with a religious-based curriculum, and never has had a complaint from parents until now. It was home-schooling parents, she said, who helped the system establish the review procedures.
The school system first tried to contact Simmons and Stafford by going to their home on Sept. 27, after receiving an anonymous phone call about the couple's failure to send their daughter to school, Caplan said.
Somerville got involved in the case after Simmons was charged with truancy in January.
David Lank, assistant state's attorney for Howard County, said that in truancy cases, hearings are typically held with a prosecutor, school officials, and parents before charges are brought, but he said Simmons and Stafford resisted coming to those meetings, where they could have expressed their concerns.
“Unfortunately, they took a very adversarial approach. Rather than opening up a dialogue of communication with the state and the school pupil personnel worker, they decided they didn't want to have any communication.”
In Maryland, he said, “You can be home-schooled in anything if you're Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, whatever it is, as long as there is some type of state monitoring system.”
Howard County officials said they never intended to be unfair to Catholic families.
“We have a process that allows us to provide reasonable accommodation for people with sincere religious beliefs,” Lank said. “If this family had taken advantage of this process, these charges would probably never have been filed.”
Judy Roberts writes from Millbury, Ohio.