November 25, 2002

Challenge Emerges to Homeschooling: Officials Accused of Intimidation

From the Chicago Tribune
By Diane Rado
Tribune staff reporter
Published November 25, 2002

SPRING VALLEY, Ill. — Home-schooler Roger Channell was practicing spelling with his sons last month when a truant officer showed up at his door and demanded to see what Channell was teaching.

"We can take your children away," the truant officer said, according to Channell. His boys, 10 and 11, ran away, one crawling under a bed to hide.

Now Channell and other parents in three rural Illinois counties find themselves in the fiercest battle in decades over home schooling—an unexpected turn of events, in one of the least restrictive states in the nation for educating children at home.

Home-school parents say the government is trying to strong-arm them into enrolling their children in public schools, using legal threats and intimidation. Local officials say they are responding to increasing complaints about children being out of school.

With the popularity of home schooling soaring—advocates estimate more than 100,000 children are home-schooled in Illinois, and perhaps 2 million nationwide—the dustup has brought national attention to this swath of small towns and soybean fields.

Home-school advocates say that having won support at the state level, confrontations like this mark a new struggle as local officials seek to increase their influence.

"That's where the battle is: How much can they look over our shoulder?" said Christopher Klicka, senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association. "We want to maximize parental freedom. We want the honor system."

The cause of these home-schoolers has been taken up by Christian radio talk shows, home-school Web sites and a network of sophisticated conservative advocacy groups.

On the other side stands an obscure education agency, the office of the regional superintendent. Bruce Dennison, the regional superintendent for north central Bureau, Stark and Henry Counties, says it's his duty to make sure children are being educated, either in the classroom or in home schools.

Dennison said he sends a truant officer out to homes, usually in response to outside complaints, looking for documents such as lesson plans, textbooks and attendance records.

"We'd like to work with [home-school] parents in a variety of ways in an attempt to gain some information. If folks are unwilling to share anything, then we are in a very difficult situation," said Dennison.

So Dennison has sent out letters to some parents summoning them to "pretrial hearings," while his office has referred others to the state's attorney's office for prosecution.

Bureau County Assistant State's Atty. Geno J. Caffarini said that his office is unlikely to charge parents with misdemeanor violation of the state's compulsory schooling law, which would put the burden on prosecutors to prove that parents are not home-schooling children adequately.

But prosecutors are considering action in juvenile court that would force at least two families to prove they are educating their children. And if parents did not cooperate there, they could find themselves in contempt of court.

At the heart of the controversy is a fundamental disagreement on what the state can demand from home-school families.

Both sides agree that Illinois is one of the most lenient settings in the country for home schooling. State law requires only that parents place children between 7 and 16 in school. Home schools are permitted if they teach the same broad subjects taught to children of the same age and grade in public schools. Instruction must be in English.

Forty-one other states require some form of notice from home-school families, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association, which provides legal assistance to home-school families. More than half the states require more from home-schoolers, including state-approved curriculum and standardized testing.

But in Illinois, the law does not even require parents to notify the state or school officials when they are home-schooling their children. Attorneys for home-school parents say Dennison is overstepping his authority, and have advised families not to comply with his demands.

"He does not have the power under the law to require home visits, or pretrial hearings, or approving curriculum. Those are things he is making up out of thin air," said Klicka.

Dennison said he is simply following the State Board of Education's interpretation of Illinois court cases. The courts, according to the board, have held that regional superintendents may expect home-school parents to document the subjects they are teaching and demonstrate that their child is achieving at grade level.

Only half a dozen families have refused to cooperate, he added.

But Carol Severson, a home education advocate with the Eagle Forum of Illinois, said she has heard complaints and concerns from at least two dozen families in the region over the last month—a level of government intervention she has not seen in more than 20 years of tracking home schooling.

Parents are upset not only about the requests, but the confrontational tone they say government officials have taken.

Christine Fortune, who home-schools three of her children in Geneseo, in Henry County, said a truant officer came by Oct. 11 and was "fixated on attendance records."

Because her children wake up every day in the house, she doesn't keep the kind of attendance logs that public schools do. She said she's been a substitute teacher in the region, and both her parents are retired school teachers, so she has a variety of books, workbooks and lesson plans for her children.

A few days later, Fortune was in the shower when her 14-year-old daughter Stephanie opened the front door to find a truant officer backed up by Geneseo police cars in the driveway and along the road. The truant officer hand-delivered a letter informing Fortune that she should appear for a "pretrial hearing" at the regional education office.

Fortune was livid. "They could have easily popped it in the mail," she said.

Geneseo Police Chief Tom Piotrowski said his records show only one police car going to the home on Oct. 16, responding to a request to assist a truant officer. Such requests are made because truancy visits can sometimes become "very emotional situations," Dennison said.

But Piotrowski said his officer stayed only three minutes: "When we found out it was basically some administrative papers, it wasn't a police matter. We basically left the scene."

In Spring Valley, Bureau County, Roger Channell said truant officer Merle Horwedel told him that his children needed to be in school and needed socialization with peers. He demanded to see Channell's curriculum. When Channell refused, the officer issued a warning: "He said if this persists, you know we can take your children away."

Horwedel did not return the Tribune's phone calls. Dennison would not say whether he has discussed the statement with the truant officer.

"I don't make comments regarding personnel actions," Dennison said. "It is certainly not the policy and practice of our caseworkers to make comments of that nature."

The regional education office in Illinois has no authority to remove children from their homes, and DCFS officials said they cannot remove children for truancy violations.

But last month Channell and his wife got a letter from Caffarini, warning that they faced prosecution for violating the compulsory attendance law.

"We are obviously not against home schooling," Caffarini said in an interview. "All we want is for them to show in good faith that they're providing an adequate course of instruction."

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune