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Handling It Ourselves

By Shay Seaborne of Virginia; adapted for Massachusetts homeschoolers by Milva McDonald

New homeschoolers understandably worry about meeting local requirements and interacting with superintendents. Even veterans may feel intimidated by the presumed authority of the school officials with whom they necessarily have contact. This apparently was the case with an experienced homeschooling mom who called me in mid-July, wanting to know whether I had already "asked permission" to homeschool this year. Shocked at hearing that term from a seasoned homeschooler, I uttered the refrain I repeat on discussion lists, via email, over the phone, and in person: "We are not asking permission to homeschool; we are notifying the superintendent that we are homeschooling."1

The following day a mom on a statewide discussion list put her finger on the crux of the problem when she wrote, "The school system did its job on me. I'm afraid to question their authority!" This may be the reason that many homeschooling parents - full-fledged adults - feel intimidated in the face of school officials. Those old feelings return, the same ones that arose when we received the threat of being sent to the principal's office. Kafkaesque specters of interrogation and a sense of impending danger may also haunt us. Being aware of this, we can choose to empower ourselves by knowing the law, by providing only legally required materials and by learning from and joining with other homeschooling parents. Through these measures we can face our fears and respond confidently and appropriately when dealing with school officials who may ask for more than the law requires.

When homeschoolers provide more information than required by law, superintendents can become used to the additional materials, and start asking for them from others, unwittingly creating the perceived need for "legal protection." It is a vicious cycle. As children we learned to fear school officials' power, and when we homeschool, they present themselves as the authority. School officials can be intimidating. We become afraid and give them whatever they want, without examining whether the request is in alignment with the law, hoping we'll be left alone. But doing so simply shows the officials that we are compliant, and they ask for more because we've demonstrated that we'll give them whatever they want. They continue to ask for more, we feel threatened, and we think we are incapable of stopping the cycle without intervention from an organization.

But we homeschooling parents are our own best protection. It isn't necessary to call in lawyers and conjure visions of lawsuits when a school district requests more than the law requires. Most superintendents are reasonable and are just trying to do their job to the best of their ability. They may simply be unmotivated to learn the complexities and details of our murky home education law, so why uncork the vinegar bottle before you have tried using honey? With a little support and encouragement from each other, homeschoolers can effectively respond to superintendents' offices that overstep their bounds.

For example, some superintendents ask for a meeting with the parents, which is beyond what the law requires. Parents can respond with a simple, cordial letter stating that they prefer to conduct the approval process through mail correspondence. If necessary, the parents might also ask where in the law it says such a visit is required. More often than not, and usually very quickly, the school grants the family approval. Other requests Massachusetts superintendents make that parents can gracefully decline to fulfill are a detailed schedule of hours, home visits, use of standardized testing, and use of a purchased curriculum.

In cases where we submit the appropriate paperwork and the school denies approval, we can stand firm, feeling confident that we did what the law requires. If the school chooses to pursue a case against us, they must assume the burden of proof, not us. This is so uncommon that there have been no significant court cases around homeschooling since Michael Brunelle & others vs. Lynn Public Schools was decided in 1998.

When homeschoolers handle the small encounters ourselves we prevent them from snowballing into more serious difficulties. Dealing directly with our local school officials, we avoid falling into depending upon an organization to take care of us. We can retain our individual power and autonomy and demonstrate that homeschoolers are confident, polite, and proactive, rather than fearful and aggressively reactive.

Homeschoolers often contact AHEM with questions about local homeschool policies. We cannot stress enough that policies are not law. Based on our research on local homeschool policies, it is quite common for a written homeschool policy to exceed the law. While seeking to change your local homeschool policy for the better may be a noble effort, it is not necessary to do it just to avoid following objectionable policy points. Anything in a policy that exceeds the law may be ignored. In fact, homeschoolers in Massachusetts regularly ignore bogus policy points and submit only what the law requires with no negative consequences. See "Homeschool Policies in Massachusetts: An Overview."

Through individual courage and commitment to providing only what the law requires, we protect our homeschooling rights. It is in our best interest to claim that responsibility on an individual level as much as we can, and to encourage others to do the same. Issues such as these are often discussed on state and local homeschool email lists, where members can ask for help and learn the nuances of dealing with education officials (see http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MAhomeschoolers/).

A new homeschooler, filing for her first time, confessed that she is "not fearless, like you are." But I am not fearless. Rather, I vowed, after a bad experience years ago, to avoid taking action based on fear. I am still afraid at times, but I face my fear, utilize the resources available, and trust that everything will turn out all right. And it has.

Interacting with the School District:

  • Read your state law and ask questions of knowledgeable people until you understand the law well (http://www.ahem.info/HSinMA.htm)

  • Keep a copy of Care and Protection of Charles on hand

  • Answer superintendents' queries in a timely manner

  • Respond politely and confidently

  • Communicate with school officials in writing and keep copies of all papers, so you have documentation of all exchanges

  • Consider sending mail certified with return receipt as proof of compliance 

  • Seek information and support from other homeschool parents in a local support group or discussion list, before looking for an organization to act on your behalf Find local support groups here: http://www.ahem.info/SupportGroups.htm, statewide discussion list here:http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MAhomeschoolers/.

1In Massachusetts, we must receive approval prior to the commencement of our homeschooling program. It is important, however, to distinguish between asking permission, and the concept of approval as it exists in Massachusetts law. Care and Protection of Charles does not require parents to ask permission to homeschool. Rather, it acknowledges the parental right to homeschool. The requirement to receive approval from local school officials comes directly from the Massachusetts compulsory attendance statute. The court in Charles upheld this statute, and laid out guidelines for homeschooling regulation. The court attempted to balance the acknowledged parental right to homeschool with the state interest in the education of its citizenry as expressed in the Massachusetts Constitution. Thus, they put limits on what the school could ask for, and shifted the burden of proof to the school in cases where the school disapproves the home education plan. The school's limited authority to ask for only what is "essential" to assuring the state interest was not granted so the school could determine whether to allow parents to homeschool or not. It was granted to ensure that all children in the state receive instruction equal in thoroughness and efficiency, and in the progress made therein, of that in the public schools in the same town. When school officials evaluate homeschooling plans, they are required to do it with an eye to that, and only that, and if they deny approval they must prove that the instruction in all the studies is not "equal in thoroughness and efficiency, and in the progress made therein, that in the public schools in the same town." This process is very different from asking permission.  

Note: Nothing in this article is meant as legal advice. For legal matters, contact a competent attorney.

Shay Seaborne lives in Virginia, where she currently serves as President of VaHomeschoolers. She is also the owner of VaEclecticHomeschool, the state's largest and most active homeschool discussion list.