Homeschool Policies in Massachusetts: An Overview
AHEM offers this clarification of the role of homeschool policies in towns in Massachusetts. While unsatisfactory policies can occasionally create nuisances for homeschoolers, they are not a huge problem in Massachusetts. Under our current law, the only policy that counts is Charles. While homeschoolers within their own towns can have good experiences working with school officials, build bridges, develop positive relationships, and educate school officials about Charles and homeschooling in general, a policy that exceeds Charles is not in and of itself a threat to homeschooling freedoms, and does not automatically signify an unreasonable superintendent.
POLICIES ARE ONLY ADMINISTRATIVE TOOLS, NOT LAW
No school district is required to have a homeschooling policy. Policies are not legal documents, only administrative tools superintendents and school committees devise to ease their task of homeschool oversight. School districts can write whatever policies they like as an administrative tool, but if their guidelines exceed those of Charles and Brunelle, then the policy is not legal.
While there are some inflexible and unreasonable superintendents out there, in most cases they are just people who are trying to do their jobs. Communicating with them in reasonable, non-contentious ways serves homeschoolers who are trying to negotiate on policy points. One thing homeschoolers struggling with their town's policy can do is to remind superintendents that they are not shirking their oversight responsibilities if they choose not to create a policy.
ORIGIN OF HOMESCHOOL POLICIES
Many school districts in Massachusetts recycle homeschool policies from other towns. Some may be extracting homeschooling policies from a national policy database maintained by the National School Board Association (NSBA). The Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) publicly posts school policies on its website. The parts to do with homeschooling are in sections IHBG and LBC. Our research so far shows that at least some of the policies in both the NSBA and MASC databases contain extralegal requirements.
If your town is adopting a new policy, you might check with us to see if it is a policy already in use somewhere in Massachusetts. It's safe to assume that a school adopting such a policy is not going over it with a fine-toothed comb, but rather choosing to lighten its workload by not reinventing the wheel and using something already in existence.
PROS AND CONS OF WORKING WITH SCHOOL OFFICIALS TO REVISE WRITTEN HOMESCHOOL POLICY
It is fairly common for policies in Massachusetts to exceed Charles in one aspect or another. In practice, homeschoolers generally do not follow the policy points that are objectionable, and their plans are approved with no problems. There have been cases, however, where homeschoolers have chosen to work with their superintendents or school committees to bring their town policy in line with Charles and Brunelle. Given that homeschool policies are legally meaningless in Massachusetts, what might be the reasons for spending long hours in negotiation with school committees and superintendents over points that don't need to be followed anyway?
One reason might be that working in a group on an abstract analysis of the issues can feel less threatening than doing it as an individual family, if it appears that the school is actually going to follow through and not approve plans that ignore bogus policy points. On the other hand, taking the school to task on their policy may give the policy more importance than it should have and may not be necessary to obtain approval.
Another reason is the possible intimidation and confusion of new homeschoolers. If new homeschoolers are not acquainted with the law, they may comply with policies that exceed the law. This is where homeschool advocacy organizations such as AHEM enter the picture. By creating networks and support for new homeschoolers, we can help acquaint them with the law and their rights so they can make the best decisions possible. Also, it is the responsibility of any new homeschooler to learn the law and follow it; policies are not the law.
Whether "homeschooler approved" or "ideal" policies should be created is worth considering. A given group of homeschoolers may hammer out an agreement on a homeschool policy with a school committee; then other homeschoolers in that town may come along and choose to do something other than what the policy outlines, yet their choice may still be in keeping with Charles. Will these homeschoolers be taken to task for not wanting to follow the "homeschooler approved" policy? Will school officials be more likely to enforce a policy that they feel some ownership over, having spent hours in committee meetings and negotiation sessions?
While Charles is vague on some points, in practice that translates to flexibility. Some towns choose a minimalist approach to overseeing homeschoolers, do not have any official policy, and largely leave homeschoolers to themselves. In towns with written homeschool policies, the policies aren't the same from town to town, nor do they have to be, given the flexibility Charles offers. Again, they are simply administrative tools intended to streamline the contact between school officials and homeschoolers, and guidelines in town policies ought to be in line with those of Charles.
Under Charles, parents are free to homeschool regardless of our own level of education, and we are free to use whatever methods and materials we choose. We are also given a range of options for evaluation, including narrative progress reports we create, an option not available in many states with supposedly "better" homeschooling laws. The diversity among Massachusetts homeschoolers is significant. Fortunately, our homeschooling law is flexible enough to accommodate varying styles.
Homeschoolers always have the option of choosing to ignore policy points that exceed Charles. In the rare cases where this does not work in gaining approval of an education plan, joining together with other homeschoolers in your town to address extralegal policy points may be helpful. AHEM may be able to refer you to other homeschoolers who have done this if you choose to go this route. In such a case, ascertaining where the policy actually originated may be helpful. Even after the best efforts of homeschoolers and school officials working together, policies may still contain points that homeschoolers don't want to follow. Regardless of how any group of homeschoolers may have worked with school officials on a policy, the content of a family's education plan still comes down to the individual family and the Charles and Brunelle court rulings.