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Charles, in Brief

In Massachusetts, there is no statutory scheme that deals specifically with the approval of home education plans (statutes are laws passed by the legislative branch of government). While there are some statutes that concern all "school age" children, (e.g. the compulsory attendance statute), the approval of home education plans in Massachusetts is guided by the legal principles and guidelines set forth in the Charles decision (known as case law, since decided by the judicial branch of government). AHEM strongly recommends that anyone homeschooling their children, or interested in homeschooling their children, read Charles in its entirety. To pique your interest, we have prepared a summary of the Charles case, detailing those points most relevant to our concerns as homeschoolers.

The issue before the Charles court was how to accommodate the rights of parents under the US and Massachusetts Constitutions with the governmental interest in the education of its citizens.

In August 1985, the Charles parents notified the Canton school officials that they would be homeschooling their three children. In September, the parents presented their proposal at a school committee meeting. School committee members voiced their concerns about certain aspects of the proposal, including the parents' objection to school department testing and evaluation of the children's progress. The committee asked the parents to prepare a more detailed proposal since they hoped to make a decision at the October school committee meeting.

The father met with the school superintendent prior to the October school committee meeting. At that time, he refused to detail the educational background of himself and his wife. He refused to provide the school department with the number of hours and days that would be devoted to instruction. He also refused to allow a home visit by school officials. The father did agree to provide copies of the tables of contents of the curriculum materials when they arrived, and did state his preference for using a particular standardized test.

The parents declined to attend the October school committee meeting, asserting they had no additional information for the school committee. The school committee prepared a memorandum of agreement, and sent this to the parents, saying if the parents signed the memorandum, it would facilitate the school committee's consideration of their proposal. The parents returned an unsigned edited version of the agreement.

At the November school committee meeting, the members voted to accept the recommendation of the school superintendent that the parents be denied permission to homeschool their children for the following reasons:

1. Superintendent had not been given reason to believe the parents were competent to teach their children.

2. The parents had indicated that their children would be spending less time on formal instruction than the public schools.

3. The parents objected to the school's efforts to monitor/observe the instructional methods, and periodically test the children to determine whether they were making reasonable progress.

The school department initiated truancy proceedings, and filed a petition for care and protection of the children. In May 1986 a judge found that the children were in need of care and protection with respect to educational care, and ordered the children to school. The parents retained both legal and physical custody of the children. The parents appealed the judge's order to the Appeals Court, and the Supreme Judicial Court took the case on its own motion. While the appeal was pending, the lower court's decision requiring the children to go to school was stayed, and the children were NOT sent to school.

The Supreme Judicial Court heard the case, and in March 1987 decided the following:

1. The school committee was the proper party in maintaining a care and protection proceeding.

2. A school committee's process of approval of a home education plan is to be governed by the same body of law as the approval of a private school. (Mass. General Laws, Chapter 76, section 1) "School committees shall approve a private school when satisfied that the instruction in all the studies required by law equal in thoroughness and efficiency, that in the public school in the same town."

3. Approval must be obtained in advance, i.e. prior to removal of the child(ren) from school. However, the court goes on to say that if the parents commence the education of their children at home in the face of the school committee's refusal to approve the parents' home school proposal, the burden of proof shifts to the school committee to show that "the instruction outlined in the proposal fails to equal in thoroughness and efficiency, and in the progress made therein, that in the public schools in the same town."

4. The court recognized certain factors that may be considered in determining whether to approve a home education plan. The four factors are:

a) Proposed curriculum and number of hours of instruction in each of the proposed subjects, noting that the public schools are required to operate for a minimum of 180 days.

b) Competency of parents to teach their children. The school officials may inquire as to academic credentials and other qualifications. The court noted that parents need not be certified, nor must they have college or advanced academic degrees.

c) Superintendent or school committee may have access to textbooks, workbooks, and other instructional aids, and to lesson plans and teaching manuals, to determine the types of subjects to be taught, and the grade level of instruction for comparison purposes with the curriculum of the public schools. They may not use this access to dictate the manner in which the subjects will be taught.

d) Superintendent or school committee may properly require periodic evaluation to ensure educational progress and attainment of minimum standards. Means of evaluating progress may be standardized testing, periodic progress reports, or dated work samples. The Charles court, in their decision, required the parents and school officials to work together in trying to reach agreement on the issues in dispute. Based on this, it is likely that the court preference would be that parents and school officials work to reach an agreement on the method of evaluation to be used. In negotiations with schools around testing, parties should keep in mind the court’s mandate that any condition of approval meet the standard of “essential.” School officials may not require home visits as a condition for approval (later decided by the Brunelle court).

The Supreme Judicial Court vacated the lower court decision and required all parties to proceed expeditiously in a serious effort to resolve the matter by agreement, now having the legal principles and guidelines set forth in Charles to guide them. It is notable that the court said, "We conclude that the interests of all will be best served [if the parties] proceed expeditiously in a serious effort to resolve the matter by agreement."

So, in addressing the basic issue before the court, i.e. how to reconcile the rights of parents under the US and Massachusetts Constitutions with the governmental interest in the education of its citizens, the Court seemed to say that while parents of school age children have the basic constitutional right to educate their children, the school committee of the town in which they reside could protect the State's interest in the education of its citizens by enforcing, through the approval process, reasonable requirements. However, the Court said, "Having concluded that the approval process, under Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 76, section 1, is constitutionally permissible, we caution the superintendent or school committee that the approval of a home school proposal must not be conditioned on requirements that are not essential to the State's interest in ensuring that 'all children shall be educated.'"

The approval of home education plans in Massachusetts continues to be guided by the principles set forth in this decision. The "equal in thoroughness and efficiency" standard is still used by school officials in evaluating plans. The court sanctioned factors that may be considered by superintendents or school committees in evaluating a home education plan continue to be the only factors school officials may take into account when evaluating a home ed plan.