Learning How to Fight
During the two year term of the Legislature, between 4,000 and 5,000 bills are introduced in both Houses, representing a wide range of subjects. Some are hundreds of pages in length. Many of these bills are highly controversial, requiring long debate and consideration of innumerable amendments. Obviously, it would be impossible for the Senate and House to get through the voluminous legislative business of enacting new laws, amending old ones; appropriating money; investigating governmental operations and all of the other duties that devolve upon the General Assembly without the effective procedure of a committee system.
Just as a boxer falls many times while he learns how to box, so we fell many times during our first year of lobbying. The story of those first years is the story of our gradually learning how to fight. All through that period, Rep. Pitts encouraged us, and explained what we had to do. Meanwhile the legal situation for many families deteriorated under a rain of blows from the educational establishment.
In the Yough School District, the superintendent attended a school superintendent's conference session on homeschooling and then called all of the homeschooling parents in his district, including Barbara McMillan and Claire Pore, to a meeting at the school district administration building. He told them all that they might lose permission to teach their own children the following September if they did not gain teaching certificates. When a homeschooling mother asked an administrator why the change in policy, she was told that they were getting pressure from the local affiliate of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the state's largest teacher's union. In a small bit of effective political action, I suggested that the parents there call their representative, James Manderino, the majority leader of the House, and he apparently instructed the PSEA, who instructed the local affiliate, to lay off his constituents. (The PSEA relies upon Rep. Manderino to bring their bills up for a vote.)
In December 1985 an anti-homeschooling article appeared in the Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA) Bulletin. William Fearen, PSBA general counsel, concluded that school districts should set up policies about homeschooling based upon their opinion of homeschooling in general. He concluded:
Whether home education represents an acceptable and viable alternative to the more conventional school setting involves philosophical considerations beyond the scope of this article and the competence of the writer.
The importance of role models and socialization opportunities, the need for peer interaction in the education process and the question of whether individual parents should have the right to control the scope and emphasis of a child's education are but some of the imponderables. The degree to which these considerations will impact upon the availability of home instruction in any particular district will be determined by the philosophy of the school board as reflected in its policies adopted to deal with this matter.
The following summer there appeared the NEA's new official position on homeschooling.
The Association believes that at-home instruction programs as a matter of parental preference should be discouraged. In those cases where children are being taught solely at home, instruction should be by educators who meet state certification requirements. Those students should also receive regular and thorough instruction in a program of study approved by the Department of Education. The Association further believes that when home study is a matter of parental preference, all expenses should be borne by the parents.
The other side was getting out their "guns," trying hard to squelch this troubling homeschooling business. In spite of their efforts, though, more and more families were choosing this option.
At the Department of Education, Douglas Boelhouwer, head of the division of non-public and private schools, began sending out a packet of sample homeschooling policies to school districts who were requesting information about how to handle homeschooling requests. His packet included policies that restricted homeschooling to certified teachers.
Across the state, the number of prosecutions of homeschoolers was gradually rising. One of the worst school districts was Upper Darby, a working class suburb of Philadelphia.
During the summer of 1986, the Upper Darby School District switched from a friendly policy that readily permitted home education to an unfriendly policy that virtually prohibited it. As a result of the changed policy, at least four families that had previously received permission to homeschool decided to move to more cooperative school districts, and two families fought the issue in court. Both of these families were convicted of truancy by the local magistrate. One of these two families, the Georges, ended up selling their house and moving to a friendly district. The other family, the DiBernardinos, continued the battle in court although they were threatened with a child dependency prosecution through which they could lose custody of their children.
The DiBernardinos' problems had begun the previous Thanksgiving. At that time Donald and Mary Anne's older children, Monica (12), Terrence (10), and Dominic (8), were enrolled in a local Catholic school, but Mary Anne was becoming more and more concerned that the education her children were getting might not be consistent with her vision of Catholicism.
She first realized that she might have cause for concern when one of Monica's teachers assigned her to draw a picture of herself doing something good. Mary Anne felt that people should not brag about their good deeds, so she told Monica to draw a picture of herself praying. The next assignment was for Monica to draw a picture of herself doing something bad. Mary Anne felt that this completely contradicted her religion, as confession of sins was a private matter and not to be done in public, so she told Monica not to complete that assignment and she wrote a note to Monica's teacher informing her why she would not let Monica draw that picture. Fortunately, Monica's teacher listened well and did not penalize Monica for failing to complete that assignment.
Nevertheless, Mary Anne began to look at school activities and textbooks with questioning eyes. She found that many aspects of the textbooks (which the Catholic schools get free from the state) were anti-family. She tried to visit the cardinal to show him the textbooks, but was not able to see him so she left him a note. He never got back to her.
Also, she began to notice how her children would come home from school emotionally drained each day, and too tired to do anything else. She had hoped that they would take up musical instruments, but saw that it was impossible.
The last straw was when Dominic came home from first grade greatly troubled by something that had occurred at school. His teacher had started a daily activity called a "Power Test" where the children would stare at a clock for three minutes straight. This activity was supposed to relax them. Mary Anne felt that this activity was "New Age" in origin, and a form of self-hypnotism, so she went in the next day to talk with Dominic's teacher. Mary Anne suggested that if the teacher wanted to spend three minutes in an activity, let it be three minutes of saying prayers. The teacher said that Mary Anne was ignorant, and so on.
It was clear that the parochial school alternative was not going to address her children's educational needs as she saw them. After Thanksgiving vacation, Mary Anne decided to keep the children home and teach them herself. One of the first things she did was to arrange music lessons for them. Monica began singing and piano lessons, Terrence began clarinet and piano, and Dominic drums and piano. She also enrolled her children in a Catholic correspondence school, Our Lady of the Rosary, and requested that the children's transcripts be sent to their new school.
Their former school never sent in the transcripts nor did they take the children off their rolls, and in December the DiBernardinos were visited by a truant officer because they were not attending the school at which they were supposedly still enrolled. When the truant officer saw the classroom that had been set up in the DiBernardino home and found that the children were being homeschooled, he realized that this was a homeschooling, not a truancy case, so he told Mary Anne how to request permission to homeschool from the Upper Darby School superintendent.
Unfortunately, at the same time that the DiBernardinos were being told to apply for permission to homeschool, the Upper Darby school district was deciding not to grant permission to homeschooling families. They were switching from a friendly policy to one which required homeschooling parents to hire a certified private tutor to teach the children for five hours a day, five days per week. So Joseph Batory, Superintendent of the Upper Darby School District, rejected the DiBernardinos' application and took them to court on truancy charges.
The DiBernardinos were convicted of truancy by their local magistrate and fined $130. The magistrate was sympathetic, but felt that the present law gave the school superintendent the power to prevent homeschooling. He encouraged them to appeal their conviction by telling them that they would not have to pay their fine until the appeal was decided. Meanwhile, they continued to homeschool.
At that time I speculated in our newsletter about why the educational establishment was fighting us so bitterly:
Maybe they are afraid that the homeschooling movement will grow steadily in numbers until it makes a dent in the number of children being educated in schools. However, how many parents want to spend all day every day with their children? Most parents appreciate the free babysitting service.
I would like to propose a different explanation. The educational establishment doesn't like competition. If they have competition, then parents and children have an alternative when they are trampled upon. In one school district a mother fought the school district in an attempt to get rid of a sadistic teacher. The result was that the school district held her children hostage, mistreating them because of the mother's courageous activity. When this mother finally decided to take her children out of this cruel situation and teach them herself, the district denied her permission. How many parents do you know who don't object to things they don't like in schools because they are afraid the school will take it out on their kids?
We are fighting a battle not only for our right to have control of our own lives, we are also fighting a battle for all parents and all children.
Meanwhile, our attempts to punch back were meeting with limited success. Our bill was stalled in the House Education Committee, and there was no indication that it would even get a hearing. In September, Susan wrote a letter to Rep. Gallagher, Chair of the House Education Committee, asking why she had not heard back from his office about public hearings. A week later, we got our first reply from Rep. Gallagher but it was extremely noncommittal and made no mention of any plans for hearings:
Thank you very much for your letter concerning home education for school age youngsters which is contained in House Bill 1478.
As you probably realize, this legislation has been referred to the Committee on Education, where it is under consideration.
There are currently provisions in the School Code relating to home instruction. Naturally, House Bill 1478 goes considerably beyond what is presently contained in law.
Rep. Pitts suggested that we hold a rally in the capitol rotunda to bring attention to the many prosecutions across the state, so that November about 300 homeschoolers, parents and children, crowded the huge marble stairway in the capitol rotunda, and spilled out onto the tiled floor. Several homeschooling parents who had been prosecuted spoke. Unfortunately, all of our speakers were fundamentalist Christians. We didn't effectively communicate that we were doing a good job of teaching our children, or that our movement was a diverse group including many different religions. The press dismissed us with a "ho-hum, another group of fanatics," and, for the most part, ignored the story.
There were a few bright spots, however. Sandy Sterabin, a well-known Harrisburg radio reporter, broadcast a short spot about our rally, but generally, the conference wasn't even covered.
After the press conference, Bill and Cindy Britton met with Rep. Gallagher and told him the story of their prosecution. They told how when they had sent their son Benjamin to kindergarten, they had to "nudge him out the door," and about the day the school bus driver had dropped Benjamin off twenty minutes from home without their knowledge. They said the school district had prosecuted them when they decided to teach Benjamin at home for first grade.
Later that afternoon, homeschoolers Jennifer Burke and Liselotte Visser were visiting with Senator Pecora, who was already becoming one of our champions in the Senate. Sen. Pecora called Rep. Gallagher's office right then, and was told that the House Education Committee would hold hearings on the bill. We thought we were finally getting somewhere. This was the first glimmer that anyone was listening to us. It was a short-lived glimmer, though, snuffed out all too quickly.
On December 26 I wrote to Rep. Gallagher thanking him for his promise to hold hearings, and asking him to let me know the date, time, and location as soon as possible. I also wrote that we wanted to work with him on some evaluation amendments, "If you would like to see the present drafts and perhaps make suggestions, please let me know. We would like to work with you."
Still we got no word from Rep. Gallagher about the promised hearings. Finally, in response to our repeated phone calls, he directed Rep. Ruth Harper, Chair of the Subcommittee for Basic Education, to chair hearings. However, the time and place of the hearings were never specified. When we called Rep. Harper, she said that she couldn't schedule a date and time without the go-ahead from Rep. Gallagher. Soon it became obvious that we were getting the run around and that the hearings would not be held at all. Then Rep. Gallagher became seriously ill and decided that he would have to retire from the House of Representatives at the end of the year. We would have to wait for his successor for any real action on our bill.
In the meantime, upon the advice of Spring City Attorney David Andrew Schwartz, we decided to try to add an amendment to our bill which would guarantee homeschoolers a due process hearing with an impartial hearing officer, in order to resolve any disputes that might arise between the state and homeschoolers. David had suggested that we needed such a hearing to establish our statutory right to homeschool.
That next spring, our second legislative breakfast was held -- Rep. Pitts had advised us to make it an annual affair. Again Tom Eldredge did most of the work to organize the breakfast. It was well attended by about 200 homeschooling families. The speakers at the breakfast were four homeschooling parents (Peter Bergson, Andy Peterson, and Helen and John Jackson) and Attorney Georgeanne Daher, the lawyer who had successfully defended Sue Laurito in court. After the breakfast, we had a mini-conference for parents and children so that people would have more than just a breakfast to look forward to after they had driven all the way to Harrisburg.
The afternoon of the breakfast, the Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) met to review new homeschooling regulations that had been proposed by the State Board of Education. Regulations define a law. They tell how a bill enacted by the legislature should be interpreted. The homeschooling portion of these regulations was designed to help the school superintendents interpret the "private tutor" option in the school code now that it was being used by homeschoolers.
We opposed the proposed regulations because they would permit superintendents to require that homeschooled children make "satisfactory progress" on achievement tests and because they did not encourage superintendents to grant permission to homeschooling parents who did not have college degrees or teaching certificates. Also there was no appeal for parents of a superintendent's decision. We feared that the new regulations were designed to get school districts to enact policies which would severely restrict homeschooling. There was, in addition, an especially nasty provision that superintendents could only receive reimbursement from the state for homeschooled children if they were prosecuting their parents for truancy violations.
The hearing was held in the Department of Education building. The commission had several regulations to review that day. First we sat through a long discussion of a change in the Department of Transportation's code which regulated the construction of new airports. Then Chairman Zimmerman of the commission introduced the Department of Education's proposed changes. He stated that the new regulations would clarify the language and he made a motion to approve them.
A lawyer was there to represent the Department of Education. It was a surprise to us that nobody was there representing the PSEA. Apparently they had no idea that we would turn out en masse. It was the first of many occasions when our numbers would be felt. The Department of Education apparently thought that the regulations would pass with little controversy.
Tom Eldredge, my wife, Susan, and I went up to a table at the front of the room facing the five member commission to testify first. Tom pointed out that the Department had not consulted parent-educators during the development of these regulations. Susan effectively answered Commissioner Zimmerman's question about socialization. I pointed out three problems with the new regulations. I also pointed out that there were several parts of the new regulations that we were prepared to accept including the requirement that homeschoolers teach for 180 days or nine hundred hours (after all, the bill that we were proposing in the legislature had the same time requirement). The commission members were especially surprised to hear that the regulations did not give parents any appeal of a superintendent's decision -- almost all fair regulations include some appeal process.
John Alzamora, the Department of Education lawyer, was having a hard time defending this lack of an appeal. He argued that parents already had a due process remedy for challenging a school district's authority through the local county courts. Besides, he held, the present statute gives power to the local school districts. The Department couldn't usurp the School District's authority, it wasn't in the statute.
Tom Eldredge put in, "What about the new regulation which asks school boards to come up with their own policies? That's not in the statute." Again he asked the commission to disapprove the new regulations.
Then several homeschoolers from Lancaster County testified. Their testimony was repetitive and sometimes contradicted the testimony that we had given earlier. It presented the picture that we were a disorganized, contentious bunch who could not be satisfied with any regulation. Their most effective testimony was from Colleen Abbott, who told about her own experience with teaching her gifted child at home. However, she also expressed her disagreement with the requirement that homeschoolers would have to teach for 180 days or 900 hours a year, and said that she had no problem with the requirement that children make satisfactory progress according to achievement test scores.
The commission began to get impatient. They had let us go on for several hours, and they had many other regulations to consider. Then the five members of the commission voted on whether or not to accept the Education Department's regulations. It was a big package of regulations, not just having to do with homeschooling, and the commission was reluctant to reject the entire package just because of some faults in the "private tutoring" portion. The members of the commission voted by raising their hands. Four hands were raised in favor of accepting the regulations. Then, they looked surprised when Chairman Zimmerman raised his hand to disapprove the regulations. One member of the commission did say that he thought we'd need to seek a legislative change -- there just wasn't that much they could do with the current statute.
Although we lost that battle, we did have the encouragement of getting that one vote in our favor. Also we learned many things about hearings which would help us if we ever had another chance to present our case. Actually, a victory then might have hurt us in the long run. We might have won some cosmetic change in the law, such as an appeal to the Secretary of Education, which would have stood in the way of a successful court challenge to the constitutionality of the law. And the court challenges were coming.
The next fall, Attorney Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association filed a civil rights suit in federal court (Jeffrey v. O'Donnell) to get Pennsylvania's compulsory education law declared unconstitutional. The suit, representing at least nine families who had chosen homeschooling because of their religious convictions, charged that the present Pennsylvania law gave district superintendents "unbridled discretion to approve or disapprove a family's desire to teach their own children," and so violated the U.S. constitution and the Civil Rights Acts.
Meanwhile in Grove City, Attorney John Sparks was trying to prove that homeschools can be considered non-public schools under the compulsory education statute. He had filed an administrative appeal for six homeschools with the Department of Education, but they were refusing to hear it. In the meantime, all of the families in the appeal were continuing to homeschool and Attorney Sparks was continuing to add new families. Sooner or later, the Department would have to hear the appeal. In a letter to the Department of Education Sparks wrote, "What constitutes a `school' is not defined by Pennsylvania statute or regulation." He went on to note that this lack of definition makes the compulsory education statute "unconstitutionally vague since that statute, in particular, leads to the imposition of criminal sanctions upon the parents violating it."
On November 8, a leadership meeting for Parent Educators of Pennsylvania was held near Harrisburg. Several important decisions were made including plans for a phone tree, and plans for a third annual legislative breakfast and homeschooling conference in Harrisburg the next spring. We decided to try having homeschooled children speak to the legislators. It would be less expensive than bringing in a national speaker, and the children might be able to help the legislators see that homeschooling was a good thing.
The leadership also agreed to support Pennsylvania Homeschoolers, our new newsletter combining Western Pa. Home Schoolers with Peter Bergson's Eastern Pennsylvania PENCIL Sharpener. We now had a state-wide mailing list. Soon, the listing of homeschooling support groups in our newsletter would help people find the local organizations that were forming all over the state.
During the flurry of legislative action at the end of the session that month, the Christian School Bill was passed as a rider to another education bill. In the final days of the session, we attempted to find a senator who would add our bill as a rider to another bill, but Sen. Hess, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, told us in no uncertain terms that he would oppose such an action. Friendly senators let us know that no Republican senator in the Republican-controlled Senate, would be willing to introduce a rider that was opposed by Sen. Hess.
We had not passed our bill, but all was not lost. We had learned a lot about the legislative process. We had learned something about hearings. Homeschoolers were learning to talk to their legislators. We would introduce our bill anew the next session, and there would be a new Chair of the House Education Committee. At any time we might win a court case and get the present law declared unconstitutional.
Because of the elections every two years, bills not passed at the end of the two year session have to be reintroduced with the new legislative session. And so, at the end of November 1986 our first homeschooling bill died.
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