Home Educators Face Legal Challenges in State Legislatures
BY Barb Ernster
September 8-14, 2002 Issue | Posted 9/8/02 at 1:00 AM
PURCELLVILLE, Va. — The growing U.S. home school movement involves an estimated 2 million students and growing. And it's parents concerned about public education who are driving the movement, much to the chagrin of the education establishment.
A trend around the country lately is to try to get home-schooled children back into public schools — a trend driven in part, many believe, by the fact federal funding is based on a school district's enrollment. As a result, home schoolers say, they have had to deal with intimidation tactics, misinterpretation of the laws, demands for private records and sometimes quirky requests from their districts.
Robert Ziegler, media director of the Home School Legal Defense Association, an advocacy group in Purcellville, Va., that monitors state laws and offers legal assistance to home-school families, said the group used to hear the argument that home schooling does not work. However, test scores and college entrance exams have repeatedly debunked that idea.
Ziegler said despite the documented successes of home schoolers, they still must battle for recognition in many jurisdictions. “There are some wins and losses, and the home-school community is realizing that they should not be complacent about their freedoms,” he said.
Problems in Pa.
A key legislative effort, House Bill 2560, is under way in Pennsylvania to revise a 14-year-old law to ease restrictions and requirements placed on home educators.
Most states have a minimum requirement that parents file an affidavit at the beginning of the school year stating their intent to home school. Some states require parents to follow the same statutes as private schools and keep records at home of immunizations, attendance and academic work.
But in Pennsylvania, home-school children are required to take standardized tests administered by the school district. Parents are accountable to a certified teacher at the end of the year, who must review the child's work and approve it. It is then reviewed by the school district.
The problem, said one home school activist, is parents have been subjected to increasing demands for documentation such as proof of a high school diploma, immunizations and other information that is already provided in their affidavits.
School districts are asking for academic records, attendance records, test scores, workbook pages and mounting paperwork that goes beyond what the law requires. Sometimes families are asked for medical records, income tax returns, social security cards, birth certificates and other records that affect their privacy. Each school district differs in its requests.
“We should be able to maintain that privately at home, even if it is required, just like a nonpublic school, Catholic school or any other school in the district,” said Ellen Kramer, who, with her husband, Larry, founded Catholic Home-schoolers of Pennsylvania.
The couple home schools three children and one has just graduated. Ellen Kramer said the state education department keeps changing how it wants home educators to comply with the law, so parents are uncertain year to year what to do.
Kramer said she believes there is a system-wide agenda against home schoolers that started to mount several years ago when home-schooled children won several national competitions and attracted national media attention.
“That's when things absolutely intensified in Pennsylvania,” she said. “They have good reason to harass us back into the district because as we leave, they lose money,” she said. Pennsylvania had 24,019 home-schooled students for the 2000-2001 school year, which translates into millions of federal dollars lost to school districts.
Kramer is confident they have the votes needed in the House Education Committee to pass the bill. The challenge will be getting it through the full House and Senate and ready for the governor to sign by Nov. 27.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, a state considered favorable to home school education, a loophole was discovered recently in a law that protects student privacy. As a result, home-schooled children's records are public information.
Republican Rep. Dave Knutson has introduced a bill in the state House to close the loophole, but he warned that legislation concerning home schoolers can be problematic. Said Knutson: “There's a lot of reasons why we don't want home school students to be commonly defined as students under our laws, because those students are then subject to our laws concerning the Profile of Learning, the graduation requirements and other kinds of public school requirements.”
Some California home schoolers were alarmed this year by a memo the California Department of Education sent to all school districts. It stated in part that “home schooling … is not an authorized exemption from mandatory public-school attendance,” and “a parent filing an affidavit required by a private school does not transform that parent into a private school.”
Home-schooling parents would be operating outside the law and their children considered truant, it further implied. California is one of 12 states where home schooling falls under the private-school statutes.
The Home School Legal Defense Association has been following the situation and posted a notice on its Web site stating, “This is the same inaccurate opinion that has been routinely propagated by an attorney in the CDE [California Department of Education] Legal Office for the past 10-12 years. The CDE does not have any authority to enforce truancy.”
The California Department of Education subsequently issued a statement noting that no laws had changed. What has changed is that home schoolers can no longer get affidavits from their local school districts but must file online through the department's Web site.
Many parents brushed the memo off as a scare tactic.
Timmerie Morton is a consultant with Mother of Divine Grace, a California-based network that provides independent study programs to 2,000 home-school children.
Morton has home schooled six children in both Florida and California. She said Florida was very open and friendly to the movement, and she's comfortable with California's laws.
But problems can arise because people in charge of different school districts interpret the law the way they wish, she said.
“There's always that attitude that ‘home school just isn't right’ coming from those in the education department,” Morton said. “I don't become intimidated easily and I feel very secure in what we're doing.”
Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.
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