by Grace E. Matte
It doesn't seem to matter that homeschooling has been legal in all 50 states for years. Every September, the switchboards at Home School Legal Defense Association light up with calls from members around the nation who are experiencing problems with their local school districts.
"In HSLDA's experience, the three most common types of problems involve paperwork, misunderstood or vague laws, and school officials who oppose parental choice," says HSLDA President Mike Smith. "The three most common reasons homeschooling parents run into trouble are that the parents do not know the law, school officials do not know the law, or someone chooses to ignore the law.
"The law serves as both a boundary and a sword," he explains. "In the right hands, such a sword is a powerful weapon that can be used to accomplish much good. HSLDA stands ready, sword in hand, to defend parents who are standing up for their rights."
Here are the stories of three families who exemplify courage and faithfulness in our mutual fight for homeschool freedom.
For the last 12 years of their home education program, Ohio parents Ed and Stephanie Garrett have submitted almost exactly the same information to their local superintendent in Franklin, a Dayton suburb with a population of 11,000. They have graduated their two eldest children, Bridget and Brooke, and are still homeschooling Stanton (13) and Stephen (6). Despite the Garretts' evident success, their paperwork began to expand this year when the superintendent's staff demonstrated an incomplete understanding of Ohio's homeschool law.
The Franklin City Schools superintendent's staff claimed that compliance with the homeschool law was not good enough, and demanded a "brief outline" of the Garretts' plans for teaching physical education, first aid, safety, and fire prevention. Pointing out that this information was neither necessary nor required by law, the Garretts refused to provide it. The superintendent called a hearing and threatened possible further legal action.
Stephanie faxed HSLDA Attorney Scott Somerville 13 pages of documentation, proving her family had complied with state homeschool law. And the Garretts kept digging to get to the bottom of the request. "We learned that last year, the superintendent's office asked three Franklin families for extraneous information and the families complied," Stephanie says. "This year, the superintendent's office blanketed the whole city with the letter we received. Some people complied immediately. Some put up a little fuss first, then complied. And then there was our family. We just felt as a family that we had to stand up for what was best for all homeschoolers."
Stephanie is also quick to give credit to her state organization. "If it hadn't been for Christian Home Educators of Ohio educating us through the years on what our regulations and rights were, we wouldn't have felt as equipped to stand up to the district's request for more information."
On January 5, 2004, the eve of the Garretts' hearing, HSLDA Attorney Scott Somerville met with 175 concerned homeschoolers at a rally in Franklin. Supporters came from all over the state to show their solidarity with the Garretts, including Mary Pritchard, president of the Butler County School Board, who has been homeschooling for 12 years herself. Pritchard contrasted her positive experience in Butler County with the difficulties the Garretts were facing in Franklin. The crowd cheered HSLDA's call to unity and action. That evening, they formed a new Franklin-area homeschool organization to enable local families to present a united front to the school district. "As Benjamin Franklin said," Somerville told the assembled activists, "we must all hang together or we shall assuredly hang separately."
The next day, Somerville represented the Garretts at their hearing. In preparation for the hearing, the Garretts had made copies of their documentation, compiled a PowerPoint presentation, and assembled a sample stack of textbooks. There was no doubt that they had covered physical education, first aid, safety, and fire prevention in their homeschool.
At the hearing, public school officials conceded that the Garretts were providing their children with an excellent education. Franklin Director of Educational Services Stephen Buerschen then explained that the district had requested the extraneous information in an attempt to identify children who were suffering from educational neglect.
In response, Scott Somerville pointed out that Ohio law does not allow for an "approval" process whereby government officials determine the validity of individual homeschool programs. Instead, all documentation provided to the school district is "for informational purposes only."
The brand new Franklin-area homeschool organization provided an opportunity for the school officials to interact with people who understood home education, instead of relying on paperwork to "approve" or "reject" homeschool "applications." As Somerville emphasized, some problems cannot be solved by paperwork, only by people. Because the Garrets, supported by other local families, took a stand for liberty, the right to homeschool in Franklin without discretionary "approval" is now more secure.
Advice to parents
"Know your state laws and how to best respond to the superintendent," advises Stephanie. "Our freedoms are so very precious to us. We don't want to lose them or take them for granted.
"Build a network of homeschoolers," she adds. "We're originally from Kentuckyour state motto is United we stand, divided we fall.' Ed and I were never frightened that they might come take our children away. It was more of an irritation than a real threat. But we were awfully blessed to have many homeschoolers who stood by us and let us know that they were supporting us no matter what. Parents we didn't even know emailed and offered their support."
When school officials refused to approve her homeschooling plan, a single mother in Massachusetts discovered that all three factors of paperwork, vague laws, and officials who aren't keen on homeschooling add up to one big mess.
When Susan Leemhuis began homeschooling her son Tyler Terrasi, who has been blind from birth, she assumed it would be easy to obtain the same services from the school district that the 15-year-old had received when he was in public school. But she was wrong.
"This is our first year homeschooling," Susan says. "Basically we started doing this so that Tyler could learn at his own pace and in his own style more efficiently, to give him time to develop some interests and do things other than just school and homework. Framingham has excellent public schools, but I found that trying to advocate for my son who has special needs was so draining that it made more sense to just try to do the education myself."
Susan is a computer systems/software quality assurance engineer, able to work at home most of the time. The most challenging thing about homeschooling, she says, has probably been making sure that she has books in an accessible formatlike tapes, computer text files, and Braillethat Tyler can utilize and understand by himself on a daily basis.
"Getting his math textbook into Braille has been especially time consuming since I am doing that myself," she says. "I had to learn to use a Braille embosser, scanner, talking computer software, and software to create math Braille."
The most rewarding part about homeschooling Tyler, says his mom, is the fact that he is starting to develop some of his old interests and find new interests. Susan is also "enjoying learning along with Tyler."
Susan, Tyler, and his 11-year-old sister, Andrea, live in a suburban neighborhood on a somewhat busy street in Framingham, a diverse town of about 67,000 located 20 miles west of Boston. Tyler has plenty to keep him busy at home, but he also enjoys spending time with his friends, sister, dad, and grandparents. He is involved with his church youth group, piano, trumpet, track, swimming, chess, and ham radioand he loves his cat, Lightning.
How it all began . . .
Susan hadn't been able to agree with Framingham on an acceptable Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for Tyler for quite some time while her son was in public school, so there was already friction before she began homeschooling. The services Tyler was supposed to receive in public school included orientation and mobility, a teacher of the visually impaired, adaptive physical education, a full-time aide, Braille books, adaptive computer equipment, and more.
"Rather than the continued stress of trying to get the kind of education I wanted for my son in the public schools," Susan says, "I thought I would like to try home educationa right that I thought was available to everyone. I didn't think that I would have to prove that my son needed to be home educated."
Massachusetts is one of three states still clinging to outdated laws that require parents to submit a homeschooling proposal for "approval" by the local school district. Susan tried to find out what special education services to count on so she could write up a proposal. But she had not been successful at getting homeschooling put in Tyler's IEP and it was clear that special education administrators would "reject" homeschooling if they could.
Although Susan submitted her homeschool proposal, she received no response from the district, and her first attempt at homeschooling was cut short by the reaction of school officials. "I wasn't prepared for the response from the public school administrators," Susan recalls. "As soon as I started homeschooling, all special education services were stopped and I was accused of educational neglect."
In September of 2003, Susan submitted another plan and started to homeschool Tyler at the beginning of the school year. Her preparation this time included more support. She obtained input on her plan from HSLDA Attorney Scott Somerville, who represents Massachusetts members, and kept in frequent touch with him. She enrolled Tyler in a private school that tracks homeschool progress and could provide a transcript and other help if there was trouble. She also gave Tyler the opportunity to express his desire to be homeschooled to friends and relatives to reassure them that this was a carefully considered decision.
Sure enough, the same problem arose: services were stopped and this time school officials wanted to have an emergency hearing. Susan felt very upsetwhy was this happening again?
"Scott Somerville helped a lot with this by communicating with the school's attorney, and the emergency hearing did not happen. Scott also came to a meeting of Tyler's special education team. This was a lifesaver.
"Somehow we were allowed to continue homeschoolingeven though the plan still was not approved.' The school even began orientation and mobility services after Scott talked with the school's attorney.
"When I got provisional' approval of the homeschool proposal after submitting a midyear report, I felt a lot better."
Attorney Scott Somerville says, "It's easy to look like a great lawyer when you have a bright, articulate teen like Tyler who can explain to his special ed teachers why he wants to learn at home. Tyler did the most important part. I just explained that nine lawyers and 80,000 families were backing him up!"
As the Court Report heads to the presses, Susan's situation is not fully resolved, but she recognizes that the vagueness of Massachusetts law makes it a difficult state in which to homeschool, especially for parents of special needs children.
"I am optimistic that things will get worked out and that Tyler will end up getting everything he needs," she concludes.
What does Tyler think about homeschooling? "In school, I had a lot of homework. I'd spend three to four hours on homework each night. Now I have more time to do things."
Susan's two cents
If you are thinking about beginning to homeschool a special needs child, Susan says, "Try to get as much support as you can ahead of time. Have a positive attitude that things will get worked out. And join HSLDA because they can be helpful in dealing with attorneys and school officials."
For Steve and Laureen Eichelberger of Pennsylvania, problems cropped up before they had even finished last year's curriculum. In the face of complicated paperwork and a restrictive law, they decided to stand up to a school official who not only treats homeschoolers with condescension, but also has a long history of ignoring the law.
Known for a complex homeschooling law, Pennsylvania requires parents to have an evaluation with a qualified evaluator, submit their evaluation and portfolio to the local school district at the end of each school year, and submit an affidavit by August 1.
But in early April 2004, the Eichelbergers received a letter from the assistant superintendent of Norwin schools demanding a face-to-face meeting to review the children's portfolios, along with a more detailed log than the law requires. "Please call my office as soon as possible to make an appointment when we can review the portfolio and discuss the program during the month of June," the letter stated, ending with a reminder that the Eichelbergers' notarized district affidavit of home education was due on August 1.
"We expected itwe always laugh when the first letter comes so early," says Laureen. "Most parents haven't even finished their curriculum or had their evaluation completed in April."
The Eichelbergers are beginning their ninth year of homeschooling. Their first child, Kara, attended preschool and kindergarten at a local private school, but as more children arrived, they realized that private school was out of their budget. Friends invited the Eichelbergers to check out homeschooling at a local conference.
"So we did," says Laureen. "We checked it out, and we prayed about it. The Lord totally changed my heart, and we knew that's what we should do."
Support is a key theme in the Eichelbergers' story. They have been involved with a homeschool co-op from day one and Laureen now leads the group of about 50 families. "The co-op offers great support," she says. "We include preschoolers through high schoolers and offer classes ranging from biology to Spanish III. And we also do a lot of fun thingsword studies, drama, choir, unit studies. . . ."
The Eichelbergers live in North Huntington, Pennsylvania. Steve owns the family's heating and air conditioning business which he runs with his brother. "We recently moved to where my husband was born and raised," says Laureen. "We're right next door to grandparents and cousins. The kids love to play in our three-acre backyard with our big dog, Suzie."
As the primary instructor, Laureen identifies the most challenging aspect of homeschooling as "scheduling, getting things organized, and staying on track." But she loves how home education enables her to spend more time one-on-one with her children, see them grow spiritually, and focus on important character development.
The Eichelbergers have five children: Kara, Ellen, Amy, Emma, and Stephen, Jr., whose combined interests range from politics, debate, and AWANA to art, music, and Cheerios. Kara is a volunteer at the local library, and the whole family participates in Homeschoolers for Him, a ministry to a local nursing home.
What was different this year?
Referring back to the first letter from the assistant superintendent, Laureen recounts, "We've been going in for the portfolio interviews since we started homeschooling. We did the face-to-face interview every year."
Laureen feels that her husband's position on the school board for the past four years probably kept the assistant superintendent from pushing her as far as he did other parents. "He always wants to see dates, but I knew that was not in the law, so I didn't do it. It seemed silly to mewe're not going to do math lesson two before lesson 100. Same with a history bookif we start with the American Revolution, we're going to work our way forward through history from there. Even a book list is probably reflecting proper progression."
"I think he tried to ask for more with other people," she adds. "I know moms who said he asked to interview their child or to have the child come in so the assistant superintendent could help him decide if he wanted to be homeschooled."
Each year, Laureen says, she would scale back her portfolios a little more closely to the minimum requirements under state law.
"But last year, the assistant superintendent decided to take a family to a due process hearing just because they refused to meet with him. That's what made me really start thinking. It was a family I knew pretty well, and they were basically doing the same thing I was in their educational program. I guess I always knew the district was going beyond the law, but attending the hearing really brought it home."
At the hearing, reports Laureen, the assistant superintendent claimed that education had not taken place. But when the family stood up to the assistant superintendent's demand for interviews and presented written evidence that such interviews are not required by law, the assistant superintendent backed down and became willing to negotiate a solution acceptable to both sides.
This reaffirmed Laureen's growing uneasiness about the demands made by the Norwin School District. "After the hearing, a group of us homeschooling parents were talking about it and decided that we were not going to go in for the interviews this year."
She adds, parenthetically, "Some people are going in. Pretty much all the homeschoolers I know agree in principle that we don't have to go in. . . . But for various reasons, some are doing the interviews. Some are playing sports and feel if they don't go in, they will lose that privilege.
"Each superintendent is really just left on his or her own to interpret the law. That's where it really helps being involved in the co-op, and knowing other people in different school districts. No one else whom I knew from other districts had to go in for a portfolio review."
This year, the Eichelbergers received a second form letter from the assistant superintendent dated May 3, reminding them of his request in the first letter and informing them that if they did not make an appointment by May 21, his office would set up the appointment for them.
Steve and Laureen decided not to respond and waited to see what would happen. They contacted HSLDA for assistance and attorney Dewitt (Dee) Black wrote the assistant superintendent on May 21, "Some of the requirements you are attempting to impose on Mr. and Mrs. Eichelberger are contrary to state law." HSLDA's letter also pointed out that the assistant superintendent added to the minimum log requirements set forth in state law, expanded sample requirements, and made up the portfolio review meeting. The letter clearly stated, "Mr. and Mrs. Eichelberger respectfully decline to meet with you during the portfolio review but will submit the required documentation by the end of the current school year on June 30, 2004."
On the same day, May 21, the assistant superintendent sent the Eichelbergers a third letter, listing a scheduled appointment and threatening, "If you do not attend the review meeting you will be considered to have violated the provisions of Act 169 and appropriate measures will be taken. . . ."
The Eichelbergers faxed this letter to HSLDA, and Dee Black wrote another letter on May 26. "Mrs. Eichelberger will not meet with you on June 21, 2004, but will comply fully with state law by submitting the required documentation to the local superintendent by June 30. Further, we are prepared to represent the Eichelberger family in any action you may initiate in an attempt to compel compliance with your unlawful procedure. Contrary to the statement in your letter, there are no existing laws' to support the position you have taken."
The next day, the assistant superintendent wrote another letter, reluctantly acknowledging the Eichelbergers' refusal to meet with the district and repeating his demand for appropriate paperwork. It wasn't an earth-shattering victory, but it was a step in the right direction. Laureen says that her family's stand has encouraged other families in the district to stand on the law and to draw support from one another. "Everyone's trying to kind of keep in touch. We had a meeting about the reviews, and I invited all the homeschoolers I knew. It's important to talk about this. School officials will sometimes say different things to different people, and many parents, especially those not plugged into a support group or co-op, are not aware of the inconsistencies."
"There are people who don't even read the law at all," Laureen sighs. "Homeschooling is such a serious decision. I don't know how you embark on this journey without knowing the law. There are people who do that, but that probably makes it harder for those of us who try to follow the letter of the law."
Advice from a veteran
Laureen's advice is simple:
|>>||Read your law; know what is required. Know your rights.|
|>>||Get involved in a homeschool group.|
|>>||Be willing to stand your ground. Hopefully, school officials will realize they're going beyond the law and will back down.|
Since the Eichelbergers dropped off their portfolio at the assistant superintendent's office in June, Laureen says she has not received the call to come pick it up. "I don't know how long he's going keep it. I'm guessing he'll hold on to it till August, when our affidavits are due."
The common thread running through all of these stories is that the parents became familiar enough with their law to know when school officials seemed to be abusing the law. They stood firm on their rights, buoyed by a strong support network and by the confidence of depending on HSLDA for good legal advice.
"These are families just like yours," says Mike Smith. "They didn't expect to find their right to homeschool threatened, but when it was, they responded with knowledge and integrity."
"It's ultimately the support of each of our 80,000 member families that enables HSLDA to come alongside these families with legal assistance at just the right moment," he adds.
Even if you live in a "safe" school district, take the time to investigate your state homeschool law and encourage your homeschooling friends to do the same. Make sure you're connected with other homeschoolersjoin your local and state support groups. Finally, keep your HSLDA membership card handy, and contact us whenever you have a question or problem. Informed parents are prepared parents.
To find out your state law, go to http://www.hslda.org, click on the big United States map in the right-hand corner, select your state, and then choose "Laws."