A Brief History of Homeschooling in Massachusetts
Massachusetts has no statute that specifically addresses homeschooling. Rather, homeschooling is governed by case law, in conjunction with applicable statutes. The most important case is Care and Protection of Charles & others, 399 Mass. 324 (1987). In this case, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld the compulsory attendance statute, General Laws Chapter 76, Section 1. In its decision, the Court was aware of the need to balance two basic tenets--the constitutional right of the parents to homeschool and the state's interest in the education of its citizenry. The result was delegation of homeschooling oversight to local school districts.
The job of the local school district is to approve the homeschool plan, ensuring that it "equals in thoroughness and efficiency, and in the progress made therein, that in the public schools in the same town…" (G.L. c. 76, Sec. 1). Each city or town has discretion in determining how to conduct oversight. For example, some towns give the responsibility to school committees, while others have school principals providing oversight. Most commonly, the superintendent, or an assistant superintendent, oversees homeschooling in his or her district.
GENERAL LAWS CHAPTER 76 SECTION 1
Chapter 76 Section 1 of the General Laws states that "Every child between the minimum and maximum ages established for school attendance by the board of education,… shall, subject to section fifteen, attend a public day school in said town, or some other day school approved by the school committee, … but such attendance shall not be required of a child … who is being otherwise instructed in a manner approved in advance by the superintendent or the school committee." Homeschoolers are "otherwise instructed."
THE CHARLES DECISION
While each district has discretion in its oversight function, Charles does present guidelines for approval of the home education plan. The court begins its discussion of guidelines by saying "we caution the superintendent or school committee that the approval of a homeschool proposal must not be conditioned on requirements that are not essential to the state interest …" Charles at 337 If school personnel ask for a modification of a proposal, or for evaluative materials or procedures, the requests must meet this standard of being "essential." If a homeschooling family does not feel the request meets this standard, and refuses to provide the requested materials or to submit to the requested procedures, the school may challenge the family in court. However, the burden of proof will be on the school to show that the requested material or procedure is "essential" to ensuring the state's interest. (More on this later, in a discussion of the Brunelle case).
Charles outlines requirements necessary for a plan to obtain approval:
One is the "proposed curriculum and the number of hours of instruction in each of the proposed subjects."
Another allows the superintendent to "examine the competency of the parents to teach the children." Id. at 339 Charles goes on to quote G.L. c. 71, Sec. 1, providing that teachers shall be "of competent ability and good morals." Id. Charles also states that parents are not required to have any certification or particular diplomas or degrees.
The third piece is that the school "must also have access to the textbooks, workbooks, and other instructional aids to be used…and to the lesson plans and teaching manuals to be used…" Id. However, "the superintendent…may not use this access to dictate the manner in which the subjects will be taught." Id.
The fourth and final piece refers to evaluation. Charles says, "the superintendent or school committee may properly require periodic standardized testing of the children…." Id. However, the court also says, "Other means of evaluating the progress of the children may be substituted….such as periodic progress reports or dated work samples, subject to the approval of the parents." Id. at 340
Homeschoolers are encouraged to read Charles in its entirety to determine for themselves how to apply the guidelines to their home education plan. There is huge variation in what kinds of materials families provide to the schools. Some districts choose to exercise their oversight authority by asking for simple notification. Other districts choose to ask their homeschooling families to undergo standardized testing. The key in all situations is that both the schools and families have leeway in determining what will work for them, provided they are following the guidelines set forth in Charles.
Charles states, "…approval must be obtained in advance, i.e. prior to the removal of the children from the public school and to the commencement of the homeschooling program." Id. at 337 The Court apparently considered prior approval to be an important factor in ensuring the State's interest, while recognizing that it could infringe on the parents' liberty interests. In attempting to balance these two powers, the Court explicitly states prior approval is required, and describes what this means procedurally. However, at no point does Charles say that parents should be denied their right to homeschool if their plan is found inadequate. On the contrary, it protects this right by stating "if the parents commence the education of their children at home in the face of the school committee's refusal to approve the parents' homeschool proposal, the burden of proof…shifts to the school committee to show that the instruction outlined …fails to equal in thoroughness and efficiency …that in the public schools in the same town…" Id. at 338
For homeschooling families this means that as long as they have submitted the information Charles allows schools to ask for, families can continue to homeschool even in the face of disapproval by the superintendent. It also means that the school has the right to litigate against such a family. In that case, however, the burden of proof falls to the school to show that their plan does not equal in thoroughness and efficiency, and in the progress made therein, that in the public schools in the same town.
There have been no cases since Charles that challenged the competence of a homeschool proposal. In the majority of disputes, schools and families work together to reach an agreement, in accordance with Charles ("the parties are to proceed expeditiously in a serious effort to resolve the matter by agreement.") Id. at 340
THE BRUNELLE DECISION
No other significant cases arose in Massachusetts between 1987 and 1998, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided MICHAEL BRUNELLE & others vs. LYNN PUBLIC SCHOOLS, 428 Mass. 512 (1998). The case went to court because the Lynn Public Schools were trying to make home visits a condition of homeschool approval. Homeschoolers appealed the decision of the lower court to the Supreme Court, where it was determined that home visits were not "essential" for approval of home education plans. This means that school districts in Massachusetts cannot require home visits as a condition of approval.
Brunelle justifies its decision in an illuminating discussion of homeschooling, which we recommend all homeschoolers in Massachusetts read. Some statements help support flexibility in some of the Charles guidelines. For instance, on the matter of schedules, Brunelle states: "While following a schedule may be an important consideration in a public school where preexisting schedules need to be maintained and coordinated, the perception and use of time in a homeschool are different." Brunelle at 518 On the subject of materials, Brunelle states: "…some of the most effective curricular materials that the plaintiffs may use may not be tangible. For example, travel, community service, visits to educationally enriching facilities and places, and meeting with various resource people, can provide important learning experiences apart from the four corners of a text or workbook." Id.
Brunelle is an important decision for homeschoolers in Massachusetts, as it not only relieves us of the burden of home visits, but also supports the flexibility in approach and teaching materials that homeschoolers are able to take advantage of.
THE IVAN DECISION
The most recent case addressing homeschooling in Massachusetts is CARE AND PROTECTION OF IVAN and another, 48 Mass. App. Ct. 87 (1999). Since this case concerns a family who refused to comply with Charles, its findings and rulings do not apply to families who are complying. As a result, it does not have a significant impact on most homeschooling families, who are providing schools with the requirements as outlined in Charles.
In the Ivan case, the family was brought to court by the school for refusal to provide "bare essentials of their educational plan and to allow for any evaluation…" Ivan at 87 The court placed the children in legal custody of the Department of Social Services, ruling that "…it was always open to the parents to work out an accommodation of their interests along the lines suggested by school authorities and to resolve the matter by agreement. However, the judge found that the parents never filed educational plans that were minimally adequate within the guidelines set forth in Charles." Ivan at 91