Pennsylvania homeschooling families can spend a fair amount of time securing the services of multiple professionals—from test proctors, to certified teachers, to licensed psychologists—in order to comply with state law.
That’s why parents like Shannon Pearce welcomed news about a change to a non-education law in 2020. As it turned out, the change meant homeschoolers could now choose to skip the annual trip to the offices of yet another professional—a notary public.
Parents still have to submit paperwork announcing their intention to homeschool. It’s just that they can now use a self-certifying document instead of obtaining a notarized affidavit.
Equal Application of the Law
Some public school districts were not as enthusiastic about the change, and one of them gave homeschooling families trouble. Last month, Home School Legal Defense Association was preparing to litigate on behalf of Shannon and another member family—but school officials from their district finally agreed to comply with the new law.
The requirement to obtain a notarized affidavit is relatively minor, considering all that Pennsylvania demands of homeschoolers, Shannon observed.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” she said. But thanks to the new law, “it is one less thing you have to run and get done,” she added.
What did seem like a big deal to Shannon is that her public school district appeared to be imposing a double standard by ignoring the law. She agreed to challenge the district in order to send this message: “If we have to follow the rules, you have to as well.”
Easing the Burden
The legal change was prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. To accommodate people who were isolated for health reasons, legislators expanded the use of a document called an unsworn declaration. Typically, this document had been employed by individuals to announce a bid to run for political office, or to attest to the veracity of campaign finance statements. No witness was required.
According to HSLDA Senior Counsel Will Estrada, it soon became clear that families could use an unsworn declaration to attest that the homeschool paperwork they must submit every year is “true and correct” in the legalese of the statute. This declaration is made under penalty of perjury.
“As we looked at it, we saw that it’s an option for homeschooling families that can save them time and money,” Estrada said. “We changed our website to say you could use either the unsworn declaration or an affidavit, and we posted a sample that parents could follow as a guideline.”
HSLDA’s interpretation of the law was affirmed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which also posted forms and guidelines on its website to assist homeschooling parents wishing to use the unsworn declaration.
This year, however, officials at Franklin Area School District announced they would only accept homeschool notices of intent accompanied by a notarized affidavit.
Working Toward Freedom
That’s when Shannon contacted Home School Legal Defense Association for help. She told Estrada she wanted to help show that homeschoolers should protest any restriction of their freedoms.
“We wanted to set an example,” she said. “We have so many hoops we have to jump through, as we are one of the most regulated states. I thought—if we don’t stand up for these little things, they’re just going to take more.”
After laying the groundwork for litigation, HSLDA contacted Franklin Area School District once again to see if the issue could be resolved out of court. Officials replied that they were now willing to accept unsworn declarations submitted by homeschooling families.
Estrada said this case illustrates the importance of teamwork in attaining HSLDA’s goal of expanding and defending homeschool liberties. He noted that many different people contributed to victory, from frontline workers to specialists such as HSLDA Director of Litigation Peter Kamakawiwoole.
“As my colleagues have often pointed out, small wins like this one make a big difference to the families involved,” Estrada added. “And they contribute to our ultimate aim—empowering parents to help keep their children safe, learning, and thriving.”