Brunelle, in Brief
The Brunelle case was heard and decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1998, following a decision of a lower court, the Massachusetts Superior Court, that held home visits were a valid requirement for approval of home education plans. The Brunelle and Pustell families appealed the lower court decision.
The facts of the case are as follows. Both the Brunelle and Pustell families gave notice to Lynn school officials of their intention to homeschool their children. The school committee and other school officials examined their plans, and were satisfied with the qualifications of the parents as teachers, the contents of the curricula and instructional materials to be used, the amount of time that would be spent on instruction, and the methods of evaluation that would be used. In addition, the Lynn School Committee also required periodic home visits before granting approval for home education plans. Both families refused to consent to home visits, arguing that such visits violated Mass G.L. sec. 76, chapter 1, and certain provisions of the Massachusetts Constitution.
The Brunelles argued that Mass G.L. section 76, chapter 1 (the compulsory attendance statute) provided a statutory exemption for homeschoolers,
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. The court agreed that this exemption authorizes approved home education for children and
in doing so, protects the basic right of parents to direct the education of their children.
While this right is subject to the State's interest in seeing that children receive an education, the Brunelle court reiterated the holding in Charles:
the approval of a home education plan must not be conditioned on requirements that are not essential to the State's interest, and that school officials could enforce, through the approval process, certain reasonable requirements. The court agreed with the Brunelles' claim that a home visit is not presumptively essential to the protection of the State's interest.
The Lynn School Department articulated several reasons for their perceived need for home visits. The Brunelle court countered that
these reasons have to be measured against the nature of home education, which in certain important ways can never be the equivalent of in-school education. For example, at home, there are no other students, no classrooms, and no rigid schedules. The court said
while the State can insist that the child's education be moved along in a way that can be objectively measured, it cannot apply institutional standards to this non-institutional setting.
The school officials argued that home visits were necessary to ensure that there was a schedule that was being followed. The court said that while a schedule is needed in a school setting,
the perception and use of time in a home school is different. The court noted that parents
can observe and accommodate variations in the learning process, and teach through a process that paces each student. The school department argued that home visits were needed to ensure adequate instructional space. The court rejected this argument, saying
we doubt that parents, who are so committed to home education that they are willing to forgo the public schools, and devote substantial time and energy to teaching their children, will let the children's progress suffer for lack of adequate instructional space.
The court also rejected the school committee's claim that home visits were needed to verify that there were teaching materials present. The court said that while homeschooling parents can be asked to identify teaching materials that will be used,
some of the most effective curricular materials 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.
Finally, the court noted that both the Supreme Court and the Massachusetts SJC have emphasized the protected right of parents to raise their children without unnecessary government intrusion on familial privacy. Based on this,
home education proposals can be made subject only to essential and reasonable requirements. Since the court found that the requirement of home visits is not essential, the court held that the Lynn school officials, or any other school officials, cannot, in the absence of consent, require home visits as a condition to the approval of a home education plan.
The Brunelle court never considered the constitutional arguments made by the Brunelle family since they were able to reach a decision without delving into the constitutional claims asserted. Most courts will try to decide a case without delving into constitutional issues if they are able. Once they decide a case on constitutional grounds, the decision will usually have ramifications in other areas as well. Therefore, they try to keep their decision as narrow as possible, so that their decision will only apply to the question before them.