David vs. Goliath
The Constitution of Pennsylvania requires that each bill shall be considered on three different days in both the Senate and House.
"The new homeschooling bill, Senate Bill 154," I wrote in the Fall 1988 issue of Pennsylvania Homeschoolers, "will pass in the House and Senate -- unless the lobbies of the educational establishment can stop it. We don't have a host of paid lobbyists, so we need you to come to Harrisburg one more time. . . ."
"We, in Pennsylvania, are fighting a very tough battle," I continued. "It is David vs. Goliath all over again. We are a small group fighting for the right to teach our children more effectively than the schools. Arrayed against us are the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the organized lobbies of the educational establishment. We don't have any paid lobbyists or campaign funds to throw around, all we have is the slingshot of truth."
On November 14, the House and Senate would come back from the general election recess. They would just have until the end of the month to pass the new home education bill, Senate Bill 154. The changes in bill number and bill language were quite confusing. It rather reminded me of a Volkswagen that Susan and I had had when we were first married. First the engine died, so we put a new engine into it. Then the body gave out so we put the engine in a new body. Did we have the same Volkswagen we started with, or did we have a different one?
Rep. Pitts had asked us to have a continuous presence in Harrisburg until the bill passed. As usual we sighed and groaned inwardly and wondered how we could get people out one more time. But again, we appealed to the homeschoolers in the state, and again they came through.
Each day we assigned a different homeschooling leader to set up and man a literature table, and generally organize the homeschoolers for effective lobbying. We would have a continuous presence in the rotunda, in the lobbies, and in the galleries. We would try to make our light shine in the capitol so that we could counteract the attempts, behind closed doors, to stop us.
Over the next three weeks we would send out numerous phone tree messages. The people who had attended our last leadership meeting called all of the support group leaders that were listed in Pennsylvania Homeschoolers. These support group leaders arranged to call all of the people in their areas. Our message on November 12th was: (1) Write this down. (2) Joe Pitts says we need to have a strong presence in Harrisburg. This is our only chance to solve this legislatively. We have momentum now because of the court decision. If we miss this chance we'll be individuals in court facing Department of Education regulations. (3) Try to go to Harrisburg two days to have face-to-face contact with your legislators. The most important days are Tuesday and Wednesday this week and Monday and Tuesday next week. (4) We'll have another phone tree message next weekend.
The weekend of November 12 and 13, we had several discussions among homeschooling leaders and with Rep. Pitts about how to make our presence in Harrisburg visible over the next several weeks. Rep. Pitts had suggested that we come in with large bright red name tags that would be easily visible from a distance. I had asked Alan Koch, who was to be our leader in Harrisburg on Tuesday, to see if he could get those name tags made, but he still had about 500 smaller name tags already printed, and he was reluctant to make new ones. He and his wife brainstormed and came up with the idea of homeschoolers carrying red helium balloons in addition to the smaller name tags. They started to call around. Jay Snyder liked the idea. Bob Finley offered to rent the helium tank. Rep. Pitts thought that it would be OK, but he warned, "If you have something that obvious, you'd better make sure that you have more and more people in the capitol every day."
I didn't like the idea much, but if Rep. Pitts thought it was OK, I was willing to trust his judgment. I couldn't imagine myself walking around the capitol carrying a balloon, and I could see balloons floating up to the rotunda roof, and being prohibited in the galleries. Tom Eldredge flatly rejected the idea. He thought that carrying the balloons would detract from the seriousness of our purpose. He agreed with me that he couldn't imagine himself walking around the rotunda with balloons in hand. Together Tom and I quashed the balloon idea, but we were left with no way to make our presence extremely visible. "At least," I thought, "it will not be so visible if our numbers gradually dwindle." If I had known what was coming, I wouldn't have worried. The homeschoolers came to the capitol in numbers we never could have previously imagined.
On Monday, November 14, Tom Eldredge was already in Harrisburg. (I was not able to get off work to be there.) He realized that the bill was stuck in the Appropriations Committee and it didn't appear that it would be let out. I spoke to Rep. Cowell that day and asked him for advice. He suggested that we needed to put pressure on Rep. Manderino, the Democratic Majority Leader who decides whether bills come up for a vote.
That evening, we sent out a general phone tree message for people to call their representatives and ask their representatives to talk to Manderino and ask him to move the bill. I called Claire Pore, a constituent in Manderino's district, who had obtained an earlier promise from him that he would support our bill and make sure that it got scheduled. I also called about ten homeschoolers whose Democratic legislators had been friendly with respect to homeschooling and specifically asked them to call their representatives.
The next day, we had about 50 homeschoolers in the capitol for the first day of our eleventh-hour action plan. Alan Koch manned our literature table right at the entrance to the rotunda with a bold Parent Educators of Pennsylvania banner hanging down the front of the table, clearly visible to anyone who walked into the center of the capitol.
That morning, the homeschoolers made it a point to visit Rep. Manderino's office. Those who called their representatives from home were sometimes told to call Manderino's office directly. Claire Pore in Manderino's district was asking all of her friends and family to call his office. That morning Manderino's phone was ringing off the hook. By the end of the day, Manderino's office was getting pretty snappy and strung out from all of the phone calls that day. At first, they were taking names and addresses, but by the end of the day, they were just saying they would register the person's vote. That afternoon, Rep. Manderino was stopped by two homeschoolers in the hall, Alan Koch and Bob Finley. Rep. Manderino said, "I'm going to let your bill out of the Appropriations Committee, but you may not like the way it looks when it comes out."
That day when I came home for lunch Susan told me about a "Government Policy Statement" that all of the representatives had received from the PSEA that morning. The statement opposed several aspects of Senate Bill 154. It concluded:
PSEA does not oppose the concept of home education. It does believe that the state must live up to its legal and moral responsibility to educate and protect children, especially where the child is kept all day and night in a closed, private setting, insulated from outside observation.
I was furious. I only had fifteen minutes before I had to leave home to go back to work, but I set the letter's structure of beginning each section with a question for legislators to put to the PSEA.
That afternoon, Susan dropped all homeschooling activities. While our bigger children kept fifteen-month-old Hannah happy, Susan filled out the letter. That evening, she phoned it to a dictaphone machine at the capitol, and Tom Eldredge and Bob Finley transcribed it, edited it, typed it, xeroxed it, put it in envelopes, and sent it out to the legislators that night.
For the first and only time during the legislative campaign we punched back at the PSEA. Some quotes give the flavor of this letter:
Ask the PSEA why Representative Ron Cowell, one of the strongest supporters of public education in the capitol, wrote Senate Bill 154. Could it be that he supports quality education in general, not just public education? . . .
Ask the PSEA why home-educated children score above NEA-educated children on every study that has been conducted to date, including studies by the Departments of Education in Oregon, Tennessee and Alaska. . . .
Ask the PSEA what choice they would give parents if the PSEA teacher in the school were publicly humiliating and abusing their child. . . .
Ask the PSEA why they contend that home-educated children are "kept all day and night in a closed private setting, insulated from outside observation." Such propagandistic language is beneath a "professional" organization that purports to help teach children how to tell fact from fiction. . . .
Ask the PSEA what choice they give to parents who want to keep their children away from the drugs, pre-marital sex, and peer-group violence that are prevalent in PSEA schools. . . .
Ask if the PSEA's real worry is that if more parents choose home education, schools might have to improve in order to compete. . . .
That evening at about 5:30 I called three representatives: Pitts, Livengood and Cowell. They were all working late. Their secretaries had gone home, so they answered their phones themselves.
Rep. Pitts said, "Have your people lobby the Appropriations Committee tomorrow." He also complained about our name tags, "You need more visible name tags!"
I told him it was too late to do anything better for this week.
"What happened to the balloon idea?" he asked.
"Tom didn't like it. He thought it would detract from the seriousness of our purpose. I'll see what I can do to get us bigger name tags next week."
I said to Rep. Livengood, "Susan probably talked to you earlier today about getting Manderino to let Senate Bill 154 out of committee."
"Yes, she did," he replied.
"Do you think Manderino will let it come up for a vote?" I asked.
"If Manderino was going to kill it, he would have left it in the Appropriations Committee," he replied.
Rep. Cowell said, "That was pretty good today. Keep the pressure on Manderino. If they change the bill in the Appropriations Committee we'll reverse those changes on the floor."
The next morning, the rumor was that the Appropriations Committee was going to amend the bill. Homeschoolers went to the Appropriations Committee members to try to convince them to pass our bill out of committee without changes. At noon, five homeschoolers -- Peter Bergson, Jay Snyder, Bob Finley, Glenn Ebling, and Tom Eldredge -- had a meeting with Tom Lamb in the Governor's office, but they were unable to get a copy of the amendment. The amendment was even kept secret from Rep. Cowell, the Chair of the Education Committee and a member of the same party as Governor Casey.
At one o'clock the Appropriations Committee met. Rep. Manderino, the Majority Leader was there, but the homeschoolers outside the door were not permitted to enter. The Committee put the Department of Education's changes into the bill. Home education programs would be evaluated by achievement tests (not a professional), and the appeal of a superintendent's decision would be to the local school board who had hired the superintendent! Not only that, the new definition of "appropriate education" required that homeschooled children score higher every year on every subtest of the achievement tests or they could not continue to be taught at home. Significantly, however, the department only asked that the parents have a high school diploma or a GED, a provision we were willing to accept. They were actually trying to compromise.
Members of the Appropriations Committee told Tom Eldredge that the Appropriations Committee had no choice: either the bill would be killed in committee or the amendments would be added.
We knew that Rep. Cowell was in a difficult position. If he changed the bill again, he would be going against his party's leadership. Maybe his future as a party leader was on the line. He was being accused of putting together a bill which took only those sections from other states' laws that were favorable to homeschooling.
Tom sought out Rep. Cowell. By then, the House was in session, but Rep. Cowell came off the House floor to meet with him. "Will you champion the changes that will need to be made to put back what the Appropriations Committee took out?" asked Tom.
"Yes, of course," he replied. "But we will have to look at it to see what we can accept. I don't believe in dead heroes."
"Can we meet with you later today?"
"I don't know when session will end."
"It doesn't matter. We'll stay until it ends."
"All right, see you after session in my office."
Tom then got together the homeschooling leaders who were there in the capitol. Together they developed the outlines of a compromise that would salvage the bill. They decided that they would be willing to accept achievement tests in every other grade so long as only reading and math were tested.
When I got home from work I called Rep. Cowell's office and Tom Eldredge's home. I left messages, but no one called back. In my imagination the bill had been transferred from the Appropriations Committee right to the House floor. Maybe they were voting on it right then without giving time for Rep. Cowell to reverse the disastrous changes!
While I waited for a phone call, I started to write up a letter for mailing to all of our Pennsylvania subscribers headed "Emergency, Emergency, Emergency" which explained the new issues. I hoped we could get people to their legislators first thing on Monday morning. I wrote:
On Monday, November 13, a miracle occurred. The homeschooling bill was about to die in the Appropriations Committee, but through the efforts of the 20 homeschooling families who were in Harrisburg, and phone calls to our representatives from across the state, Rep. Manderino, the Majority Leader in the House, changed his mind and decided to let it out. Now, the next battle has already begun. You must act on this letter immediately. The fate of homeschooling in Pennsylvania is in the balance!
On Monday November 21 (or shortly thereafter) the House of Representatives will vote on Senate Bill 154 which was drastically altered in the Appropriations Committee at the request of the Dept. of Education. Rep. Ron Cowell will propose an amendment when the bill comes up for a House vote which would restore it to satisfactory form. On Monday (or shortly thereafter), the House of Representatives will first vote on Ron Cowell's good amendment to Senate Bill 154. Then they will vote on the bill as a whole. We need to get our representatives to promise to support Ron Cowell's amendment and no other, and then to promise to oppose the bill if Cowell's amendment doesn't pass. If it passes the House, it will probably pass the Senate a few days later and then get signed by the Governor in December.
Then I went on to describe what the Department of Education's amendment had done, and then, what homeschoolers must do:
1. CALL YOUR REPRESENTATIVE AT HIS HOME OFFICE OR AT HIS HOME IMMEDIATELY. Even if your representative is friendly, let him know what is going on. Call everyone else in your area who is friendly to homeschooling, and get them to call their representatives and ask their representatives to pass Ron Cowell's amendment, oppose any other amendment, and then pass Senate Bill 154.
2. Come to Harrisburg Monday so that you can speak to your representative in the morning before the vote, and possibly watch the vote from the House gallery. While you're in Harrisburg, talk to your senator or your senator's administrative assistant. If the vote doesn't get scheduled that day, stay if possible until Tuesday. If you can't stay, the visiting you did with your representative on Monday may lead to victory anyway.
I finished the letter by giving some arguments that people could use when talking with their legislators.
At about 7 p.m. I finally got through to Rep. Cowell. He was just finishing up a meeting with Tom Eldredge, Peter Bergson, Jay Snyder, Bob Finley, Glenn Ebling and Rep. Pitts.
Rep. Cowell answered the phone himself. I read him the letter as I had written it, and he suggested some minor changes. Then he put Tom on the phone. Tom invited me to join the resumption of the meeting in Rep. Cowell's office the next day at noon. Several things were still up in the air.
On Thursday, November 17, the House was not in session, but Rep. Cowell was still there. I drove in first thing in the morning and joined Rep. Cowell, Rep. Pitts, Tom Eldredge, Bob Finley and Greg White. They had had a very nice relaxed meeting the day before. The spirit was one of all being on the same side working on compromise language, every bit of which could be defended when the bill would be argued in the House. I noticed that there were some large changes in our position. For one thing, there would be achievement tests or TELS tests in Grades 3, 5, and 8.
For once, Tom and I had not had a chance to get our ideas together and be united. But somehow, the meeting was relaxed enough that we could allow disagreements to crop up in public.
Tom Eldredge had talked to Mike Farris who had suggested a provision that would eliminate the portfolio and evaluation if the children scored above a certain level on standardized achievement tests. Ron Cowell said that it didn't seem like we could do that. We had been arguing too long in favor of the portfolio to drop it now. I agreed with him.
Then I said that the one thing that I had gotten "hammered-on" the most from homeschooling leaders was the certified teacher having to have two-years experience in the last ten years in order to evaluate a home education program. I said that many of the support group leaders were certified teachers, but the "catch-22" was that they'd all stopped teaching in public or private schools to raise and teach their own children. They'd largely been out of paid teaching positions for over 10 years. They had been very upset that they now couldn't supervise the home education programs of their members.
Tom agreed. He, too, had received more criticism on this provision than on any other provision that we had ever supported, and we needed to change it.
I argued that the Department of Education had not even put the agreed-upon "two years in ten years" language into their version of the bill, so we could feel free to leave it out of our amendment.
Rep. Cowell said, "Everybody else may change their positions, but I have been one constant in this whole process."
Rep. Pitts put in, "I don't think that we need to honor that commitment. The other side have certainly not kept their part of the bargain."
"Besides," I put in, "at our negotiation session, the PSBA said that they might be willing to reopen that whole issue if we were willing to accept achievement tests. Now we have agreed to accept those tests."
Rep. Cowell asked Greg White if the language we had agreed to in our meeting with the lobbyists had been put into the bill by the Department of Education.
"No," he replied.
"They kept the old language that only licensed psychologists could do an evaluation," I added.
That decided it. Rep. Cowell agreed to eliminate the requirement that Pennsylvania certified teachers must be actively involved in the schools in order to conduct evaluations of home education programs. Now some homeschooling mothers would be able to evaluate home education programs. We left the meeting with the plan of trying to keep the contents of the Cowell amendment as secret as possible until Monday to keep the PSEA and the Department of Education from having enough time to respond to it. Tom was positive about the turn of events. "The Department of Education showed their hand first," he said. "Now we'll have the last say."
After the meeting we mailed out the emergency letter. Next Bob Finley and I addressed the nagging name tag issue. As Joe Pitts had said, we needed more visibility. We checked out the print shops in the city. The second print shop we tried had a nearby branch office with red ink on an offset press and could get to our name tags right away -- just $100 for 1,000 name tags. Bob and I then drew a large house shape, colored it in with a marker, and pasted on vinyl plastic letters that we purchased at a nearby office supply. The name tags would be available the next day.
That weekend I looked over the new Cowell amendment that had been typed up by Greg White. Tom Eldredge and Mary Hudzinski also looked the amendment over carefully. Together we found several typos and a few errors. Mary discovered that the costs of the due process hearing could be charged to the homeschooling parents. She also found that superintendents could force homeschooling parents to give their children achievement tests in the middle of the year on an emergency basis. Friday night, as I was reading over the whole bill, one of the errors popped out at me. It said, "Other persons may evaluate the home education program with the prior consent of the school district of residence superintendent." That sentence was supposed to mean that parents could choose evaluators with other qualifications. I had read the same sentence hundreds of times, but this time it popped out of the page at me! Couldn't this be misinterpreted to mean that the superintendent could send nosy truant officers into the home to interview the child and evaluate the home education program? I called Tom Murphy, my expert on wordings, and he agreed that it was a problem.
The next day I called Rep. Cowell at his home in Wilkinsburg, near Pittsburgh. I mentioned that there were several errors in the bill that Greg would need to fix. At first Rep. Cowell was reluctant to change anything because it would delay having the final version of the amendment written up, but when he found out about how serious some of them were, he said, "We'd better correct these errors. I'll meet with you Monday at my office in Harrisburg."
On Sunday night, my son, Jesse, and I stayed with the Finleys at their beautiful log cabin north of Harrisburg. That night homeschoolers across the state were praying that God would give wisdom to the legislators and the homeschoolers who would be in the capitol that week. We knew that although we could do our utmost to help things along, the outcome was in God's hands, not ours.
On Monday morning, we had a quick meeting with Rep. Cowell in his office. After the meeting, Greg White went back to his office to change the errors that we had found in the bill.
Bob Finley was keeping a total of senators at the table and signing in families -- 386 homeschoolers that day. They visited their legislators, walked the corridors, filled the halls, and sat in the gallery watching the House in session. The large, red and white, house-shaped name tags were visible everywhere. Some homeschoolers drove in from the far corners of the state. One representative gave his constituent the grand tour because he was so unused to having anyone drive six hours just to see him. That day we went from having 12 senators who were supporting the bill to having 26 of the 49.
That afternoon, both the Democrats and Republicans met in their separate caucuses and discussed Senate Bill 154. In each caucus the discussions were very favorable to home education.
That afternoon our bill was read for its second consideration. The third consideration would occur the next day. For the first time in history, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives would vote on a homeschooling bill.
Click here to go to the next chapter
Click here to go to the Table of Contents