November 22, 2002

Good News in Ware, Massachusetts

It was standing room only at the Ware School Committee meeting in Massachusetts Thursday night (12/12/02), as dozens of concerned homeschool families rallied to show their support for the embattled O'Brien family. The meeting was a fine example of participatory democracy in action. The meeting was a victory for homeschoolers: the School Committee decided to avoid litigation by opening their policy up for public review with the input of the homeschool community.

The homeschool community turned that situation around in Ware, however. The School Committee was visibly affected by the turnout, as elected bodies tend to be. The local press was there to cover the event, which raised the stakes even higher. The meeting began with an "executive session" discussion of the O'Brien family's legal status. This took place behind closed doors without any explanation to the assembled public, which left the press and the homeschoolers wondering what was going on. After nearly an hour of frank but productive discussion, the Committee reconvened in open session to discuss public business.

Out of concern for the crowd of patient homeschoolers, they moved the homeschool items to the top of their agenda. One Committee member started the discussion by offering just what the homeschoolers had come to request: a public review of the policy that had created all the problems. After a brief speech, he opened the floor for public comment. In light of his positive tone of his opening, Attorney Somerville was the only person to speak on behalf of the homeschool community. He thanked the Committee for being so receptive to the homeschoolers' concerns, and thanked the O'Briens for having the courage to risk their own safety to raise such important issues for public discussion. Then he explained the reason for the conflict in Ware.

The fundamental conflict in this case boils down to a disagreement about Massachusetts law. The school's attorney believes that homeschoolers can be convicted in court simply because they have not been "approved" by the Superintendent or School Committee. Behind closed doors, in executive session, Attorney Somerville had questioned the other attorney very pointedly about this matter, even to the point of demanding to know whether she had ever litigated a homeschool case. She had not, and tried to cite cases from the 1950s for the proposition that an "unapproved" homeschool was by definition illegal. Unfortunately for her, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has been quite clear that an unapproved homeschool program can still be legal. If a school district refuses to approve a homeschool, the "burden shifts to the school district" to prove that the homeschool is worse that the public school. Since Ware is officially ranked in the bottom 20% of Massachusetts school districts, and both of the O'Briens are certified teachers, there is no doubt that this family could win if their homeschool was challenged in court.

Fortunately for Ware's homeschooling parents and other taxpayers, the School Committee has avoided the embarrassment and expense of taking bad advice from their own lawyer. HSLDA thanks the families across western Massachusetts who turned out to ensure "liberty and justice for all" last night.

 Other Resources

Trouble in Ware, Massachusetts
On Thursday, December 12, 2002, the Ware School Committee will have one final opportunity to avoid embarrassing and costly litigation.

Homeschoolers seek policy review
A lawyer believes that the Ware home-schooling family would win a court battle with the School Department. (