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Homeschoolers Stand Their Ground

In Fall of 2003, longtime Massachusetts homeschooling parents Julia B. and Jeff C. experienced a pothole in their previously smooth dealings with local school officials. Since homeschooling regulation in our state is governed by case law which is flexible, open to interpretation, and administered by local school districts, across the board guidelines do not exist. A disadvantage of this setup is that new or existing school personnel can change local policy at the drop of a hat. But policies are not law, only tools to aid the schools in their oversight function. Homeschoolers do not have to comply with policies that exceed the case law. The flexibility Charles (1987) offers, and its encouragement to parents and schools to negotiate and find agreements that work for the family while ensuring the state's interest, puts homeschoolers in a good position to resolve disputes with their school districts amicably.

When Julia and Jeff received the letter demanding more evaluative materials than they had ever submitted before, it understandably created worry, anxiety, and concern. But what might appear to be a Massachusetts homeschooler's worst nightmare turned out to be little more than a brief, mildly unpleasant dream with a happy ending. The couple handled the situation without hiring a legal professional. They consulted with AHEM representatives, as well as homeschoolers in their area, to address the crackdown. Ultimately, though, they decided for themselves how to interact with their superintendent. They were able to stand their ground, receive approval, and continue their child-led homeschooling in the way they always had.

Following is a brief conversation with Julia offering insight into her experience working with her local superintendent.

What elements of your school district's requests did you take issue with? After submitting our usual letter of intent with progress report, which for the first time excluded a long bibliography of library books, they asked for work samples and a more detailed "curriculum."

Why did you object to this? We objected on the basis that the progress report was all that was required, and that we were not required to supply a detailed curriculum if our method of homeschooling didn't allow for one.

What was your response? At first, Jeff called back just to find out in person what the superintendent actually wanted without committing us to anything. I was too nervous to call - afraid I'd put my foot in it or overreact in anger unnecessarily. Then we wrote to her, citing Charles as evidence we didn't need to submit more materials. We reminded her that the kids' progress was our responsibility, but that she could see evidence of it through the progress report. We cited a few examples to support this. We reiterated our "teaching" or learning methodology (child led and integrated), referred her to the document about our educational philosophy, cited materials we would use, and reassured her about the topics that would be covered, generally speaking, and the overall number of learning hours the kids would meet or exceed. We also asked for future communications to be in writing.

What was the outcome? She wrote a formal letter back essentially saying, "Thank you for your letter with regards to homeschooling regulations. Enclosed please find the School Committee policy and highlighted plan requirements. I am following through on these guidelines. As for the plan, the onus is yours to provide a plan with curricula guidelines, books, and resources you will be using, hours spent, who will be doing the teaching, and what methods of assessment will be employed. Consistent with our policy, please provide me with what our policy outlines." There were also a couple of thank you's, etc., in there. She enclosed the town's School Committee Policy on Home Instruction, which included some "illegal" requests. 

I was pretty nervous. And I was angry. So I re-read Charles and Brunelle, and a couple of the summaries. I don't understand a lot of legalese, so the summaries were helpful. I consulted several people about our legal standing, because I was starting to feel targeted. I talked with AHEM representatives about what could and could not be required, trying to iron out those gray areas. And I started writing a lengthy response, with input from several friends. 

Then one friend from my town called and said she thought the superintendent wasn't as much hostile as a little dense. She pointed out that the woman was handed down the policy, and was not instrumental in creating it. While the woman was a big testing advocate and didn't "get" homeschooling, my friend thought a less adversarial approach would probably help move the approval process along. So we took that into consideration and wrote a different answer back that carefully spelled out, in itemized form, how the information we'd given answered her questions and requirements. It occurred to us that she just couldn't glean the information from the prose form we'd originally used and literally needed bulleted information to get it. Also, to allay any of her fears that we might be trying to get away with something, we attached the full "Library Books Read" list that we'd always included in prior years. They are lists we keep anyway-I'd left them out to try and establish a precedent for giving as little as possible, but my friend thought their absence this year might have set up a red flag of concern to the superintendent. One other factor was that this last letter got to the superintendent just before the school year started. My friend felt that she wouldn't have time to do anything but approve it anyway, and she was right! Within a couple of weeks the whole town had their approval letters.

What advice do you have for Massachusetts homeschoolers facing unreasonable requests from their school districts? Talk with others in your town, whenever possible, or in your support group. People have lots of good ideas. Don't always listen to those who suggest you give in, however, because there are often diplomatic ways around the problem.