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March 27, 2003

Hearing Officer Rules Homeschooler Must Submit to Special Needs Evaluation

A Missouri hearing officer has ruled that a local school district has the authority under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to compel homeschooled children to take a comprehensive special needs evaluation even though they have rejected all public school services.

IDEA is a federal law that offers financial assistance to states to pay for special needs services. To receive the federal funds, the states must adopt policies and procedures designed to make it known to parents whose children are privately educated that under some circumstances, they may be eligible for publicly-funded special needs services. This provision is known as "child-find." The hearing officer held that under the "child-find" provisions, local school districts have an affirmative obligation to identify, locate, and evaluate all privately educated special needs children within their jurisdiction, including homeschoolers.

The McCormacks' 11 year-old son, Sean, (names changed) had been enrolled in public school until last fall. The McCormacks experienced years of disagreement with the school district over whether Sean needed special education services, but Sean had never been evaluated. The McCormacks offered to have Sean's academic needs privately evaluated at their own expense. The school district first accepted this plan, then after a change in personnel, rejected it. The school insisted that before it addresses his potential academic needs, it first must evaluate his social and behavioral needs.

Rather than subject their child to a needlessly intrusive evaluation, the McCormacks decided to homeschoool Sean. They had Sean's academic needs privately evaluated and began privately providing appropriate services to augment his home education. They also joined HSLDA.

Under IDEA, a public school must provide special needs services to all eligible public school children. Schools are also required to spend a certain amount to fund services for some privately educated children, but no individual child has a right to services. And if a child attends private school or is homeschooled, his parents may reject those services if offered.

After the McCormacks withdrew Sean from the public school, the school asked for consent to conduct a comprehensive special needs evaluation. HSLDA attorney, Scott Woodruff, immediately notified the school that the McCormacks did not want any public school services now or in the future. They therefore refused consent to conduct the evaluation.

The school nevertheless sought a due process hearing claiming that under the IDEA's child-find provisions it had an obligation to evaluate Sean whether Sean's parents liked it or not. The school insisted on the evaluation while acknowledging that the McCormacks had the right to reject any services that might be recommended-and that the school had no obligation to provide any services because Sean was homeschooled!

"This is the epitome of a bureaucratic power play," said HSLDA Litigation Counsel, James R. Mason, III. "The school wants to force an evaluation to see if Sean needs services his parents don't want and the school may not provide anyway. Parents must have the right to reject such services."

HSLDA moved to dismiss the due process hearing. We argued that Congress never intended to compel homeschoolers to submit to a public school special needs evaluation unless they were seeking publicly-funded services. Instead, the child-find provisions were simply intended to require public schools to advertise the possible availability of services to children receiving a private education. We also argued that if the school district's interpretation of the child-find law is correct, the IDEA would amount to an unconstitutional invasion of parents' rights to privacy and to direct the education of their children.

The hearing officer acknowledged that forcing an evaluation on unwilling parents created significant privacy and parental rights concerns, but he refused to interpret the statute or consider the constitutional ramifications. He denied the motion to dismiss and HSLDA is preparing to appeal to federal district court.

HSLDA President, J. Michael Smith noted that in the past school districts have always backed off once HSLDA notifies them that the parents don't want publicly funded special needs services. "This case goes to the heart of parents' right to homeschool," said Smith. "Because it involves a federal statute, this ruling could potentially affect homeschoolers in every state."