Sunday, March 23, 2008

The homeschooling laws in CT may be changing

"If you're a homeschooler, you're automatically a member of the homeschooling movement. There are no requirements or membership fees, but you can't choose not to be a member either. Like it or not, if you're a homeschooler, you're part of the movement, and what you do affects other homeschoolers and your own future as a homeschooler. Being part of the homeschooling movement has many advantages and some serious responsibilities..."
..........Larry and Susan Kaseman, Home Education Magazine

There is so much chatter going on in the Connecticut homeschooling community right now. We are facing the possibility of having our rights to homeschool as we have always done, change dramatically.

People I know have been having trouble following what the heck is going on, because it is only recently that circumstances have begun to affect them personally. So I figured I'd summarize the whole thing. You can find other blogs which also do so, but mine will be a more simplified version (hopefully) and specifically for those who are arriving with no knowledge of this at all. Also, I will speak a little bit as to what the viewpoints are in the homeschooling community here.

The whole thing started because many families who withdraw their children from public school to homeschool have been reported to DCF. What specifically happens is that parents send a letter to the school informing them that their child will no longer be attending that school. But the superintendent does not remove the child from the roster, so eventually because the child no longer shows up, the child is considered truant and the parents are reported to DCF for "educational neglect". You can find a map of all the towns in CT where this problem has occurred here, and as you can see, the problem has become too widespread for comfort.

So Deborah Stevenson of National Home Education Legal Defense, (NHELD) our foremost legal homeschooling advocate here in CT, spent the last several years working to get legislation through to stop this, with CT Representative Arthur O'Neill. In 2005, 2006, and 2007, Rep. O'Neill offered some bills and amendments to get withdrawal language codified. All three years the bills were never raised out of the Education Committee and instead were allowed to die. No hearing dates were ever set for the bills.

Now in 2008 Rep. O'Neill has tried again. He invited legislators to a series of legislative forums to educate them as to why this bill was necessary and to enlist their support for it in this session of the legislature. At one of these forums, the Chairman of the legislature’s Select Committee on Children, State Senator Ed Meyer, said that he would raise the bill for a public hearing.

"The procedure after voting to raise the bill is for the chairmen of the committee to inform the Legislative Commissioner’s Office that they want the bill officially drafted in appropriate legislative language. The drafted bill is then given a number and published".[1] SB 162 basically started out saying that if a parent sends a certified letter to a school telling them they are withdrawing their child, the school must accept that letter and disenroll the child.

The first bump started at the Legistlative Commissioners' Office. SB 162 came out of that office completely transformed. Instead of changing Connecticut General Statute Section 10-220: the Duties of Boards of Education, it changed Connecticut General Statute Section 10-184: the Duties of Parents. We can now easily speculate as to how the changes were snuck in...

The next step was a public hearing. Luckily the committee Chairman, Senator Ed Meyer, was aware of the changes, and announced "at the beginning of the public hearing that the intent of the committee was to vote on the bill as originally proposed, that the committee would proceed with the hearing with the understanding that the committee intended the bill as originally proposed to be acted upon, that the mysteriously changed language would be eliminated and the original language would be substituted in its place, and that the committee likely would vote to approve the amended version of the bill containing the original language as proposed by Rep. O’Neill". [2] Many, many families showed up to support the bill in its original language, and share their horror stories in being reported to DCF. Later, on February 28th, the Select Committee on Children unanimously voted the bill through as originally written.

Now on to the Education Committee; the committee which had refused to raise the bill over the past three years. Remember now, the hearing part was over, so the public could no longer speak to all the legislators in a public forum and on the record. NHELD encouraged the CT homeschooling community to contact co-Chairs Senator Thomas Gaffey and Representative Andrew Fleischmann to ask them to raise the bill, and the rest of the legislators on the Education Committee to ask that they pass it. We homeschoolers in CT got busy.

"Constituents of Gaffey and Fleischmann [wrote] and called asking them to support the bill. Fleischmann sent out the same noncommittal standard form letter to all those who inquired merely thanking them for contacting him and saying nothing else. Gaffey did respond to one constituent’s inquiry. He contacted her by telephone seemingly expressing his support for the bill by indicating he didn’t think there would be “any problem” with it in the Education Committee. When [his constituent] wrote him back asking him to clarify whether that meant he would raise the bill in the Education Committee and urge its adoption, however, Gaffey [did not] respond at all.

"Meanwhile, the State Education Commissioner, Mark McQuillan, provided Rep. O’Neill with a copy of a proposed bill that would substantially change Connecticut General Statute 10-184. Essentially, the bill as proposed by Commissioner McQuillan did not include the language as proposed by Rep. O’Neill. Instead, it included the mysteriously changed language that we saw prior to the public hearing on SB 162." [3]

On March 17th, Senator Gaffey stated that he planned to put before the Education Committee at its meeting the next day, Senate Bill 162 containing what he called “compromise language”. And that is exactly what he did. He proposed the language that would change Connecticut General Statute Section 10-184: the Duties of Parents, instead of changing Connecticut General Statute Section 10-220: the Duties of Boards of Education.

Taken directly from the video of the meeting (you can watch the entire thing here if you are so inclined; start at 01:01:50 on the clock, for SB 162):

Representative Bartlett:
"Mr Chairman, the proposed substitute, changes the General Statute section from 10-220, which is the way it came out of "Children", to 10-184, is that my understanding, is that correct?...Can the Chair just explain why the change?"

Co-Chairman Senator Gaffey:
"Sure. Because in the prior section that was in the bill that came out of the Children's Committee, that section does not include other withdrawals of children from school that section 184 does, such as children who are between 16 and 18 and seek to withdraw from school, or children that are between the ages of five to seven, that seek to withdraw, or the parents seek to have them not enter school at that age, but to wait until they're either six or seven."

Representative Bartlett:
"...Is the chair comfortable with the proposed language in the statute now addressing this problem that the [homeschooling] advocates perceive?"

Co-Chairman Senator Gaffey:
"The Chair had a good discussion with Representative O'Neill, to get to your first points, yesterday, who is the author of the bill that was before the Children's Committee. Rep. O'Neill met with myself, and the lawyers on the committee, they explained why they felt that the bill that came out of the Kids Committee did not reference the appropriate statute. We provided Representative O'Neill with the language that's before you, Representative Hovey in her duty as ranking member, spoke to Representative O'Neill directly subsequent to that, and Representative O'Neill said he was quote, unquote, fine, with this language. So I would presume that since Representative O'Neill is the prime mover of the legislation and as a lawyer, a very bright lawyer at that, has looked at this, and has contemplated it, as I know he always does, and then told the ranking member that he was fine with the language, that he has agreed with our staff that it made more sense to have this language fit into 184 rather than 220.

"And the nub of the issue coming out of the children's committee, which I watched a great deal of that hearing, was the fact that there was an issue on notice, and whether or not the school district was just claiming that, or the school, claiming that they hadn't received the notice. And of course we've written into this language that the notice, that would be a letter by certified mail, so that the parent would have the return receipt as evidence that they in fact, did provide adequate notice to the Superinitnedent or the Prinicipal of the school.

"So, I think we're on firm ground here, I understand that there maybe attorneys representing the advocates that want to construct a legal argument here, but this is the state legislature, it's not a court of law, and none of us are qualified are sit in interpretation of a legal argument...I understand the argument, I don't believe it's correct, and I understand and I listened to the pleas of the parents that had undergone just in some cases horrific treatment with folks from school districts, supposedly calling DCF, so DCF would visit the homes, and just incredibly horrible situations between the people at DCF and the poor parents who are just trying to homeschool their children. I was extremely sympathetic to that, if someone would suggest how to better prevent that under statute, I'm all ears.

"We actually offered to Representative O'Neill yesterday and was actually part of one of our drafts that there would be a civil penalty to a school district who did not conform to the statutes and it was thought by the good Representative that because that would cause an immediate referral to judiciary, that he would rather not persue that this year, but take it up next year when we have more time in the longer session.

"So we've vetted this pretty carefully and again I understand that some people may be concerned. I hope folks aren't concerned because it's different, a different section of statutes and a different bill. There's no conspiracy to undo what was intended, we fully are trying to meet the intention, and in fact we do under this statute, rather than under the first statute."
So they took a vote and the thing got passed on the wrong statute. We were attempting to get legislation passed to guarantee that superintendents accept our "notice" to withdraw our children to homeschool, and what we got instead is the requirement for us to fill out a "notice of intent"; something which till now had only been "suggested procedure". This means that all homeschoolers will need to inform their school districts of their intention to homeschool. If my summary is not enough, you can find more detail in what this all means to us now here.

So on March 18th the bill passed through the Education Committee. And on March 20th, Representative O'Neill sent an email to all legislators stating:

"I support the language that was reported by the Children’s Committee and which was referred to the Education Committee. Even more importantly this is the version that the home schooling community supports.

"The redraft of SB 162 done by the Education is NOT the version that I support. Although I am grateful that my request to remove the fine provision from a draft of the bill was granted, after reviewing the video recording of the Education Committee Meeting I believe that there was confusion about my position during that meeting.

"I will work to change SB 162 so that we can pass a bill that is acceptable to the home schooling community on whose behalf I, and many of you, have been advocating this legislation." [4]
So now it goes to the Senate and if it passes there, eventually the House. NHELD is telling us all to write our legislators: "Because the Gaffey version of the bill raises complicated issues, ones that most legislators have not taken the time, or probably will take the time, to go into in depth...what we would suggest as a strategy for talking with legislators is to simplify it as much as possible. We would suggest telling them the Gaffey version is not acceptable for a variety of reasons, most importantly because it does not address the issue raised in the O’Neill version. It does not require school districts to accept a letter of withdrawal from parents and does not require the school districts to actually consider the child withdrawn. The O'Neill version as approved by the Select Committee on Children does do both of those things."[5]

Which brings us to the discussion happening on the homeschooling boards. So far, the people chiming in seem split down the middle. Some believe "momentum is still in favor of getting this bill changed rather than getting it killed. If for no other reason we can capitalize on Gaffey & Fleischmann's disgusting behavior in completely hijacking our bill. I really do think that will win us sympathy votes if we articulate the situation well."

However, others are feeling very frightened to have our rights changed so dramatically: "I do agree it is easier for us to ask for SB 162 to just be killed rather than get into a discussion of changing back the language. Sad also to say now I’m in more of the mode of 'help our family' by not getting legislation for us right here and now rather than thinking about what is better for the future HSing families and families who are presently using public schools."

CT Homeschool Network (CHN) just announced a "Take Action Forum": "Attorney Deborah Stevenson and Judy Aron [of NHELD] have been invited and have agreed to discuss with us all that's going on with SB 162. You'll be able to ask all your questions. Our goal is to unite the homeschool community so that we may stand uniform in our correspondence with our Reps."

To me, this sounds like a meeting to convince us all to keep working for the original wording of SB 162. And I have a couple of problems with this. First, I don't think CHN should be taking a political stand on this issue; they should present speakers to address the issues of both sides (fighting for a change back in language vs. killing the bill altogether). And from the meeting announcement, it sounds like they are in fact, taking a stand and advising people what to do rather than working to "inform" and "empower" as their mission statement says.

Second, to be honest, I have lost confidence in NHELD. I left the Education Committee meeting on March 18th with a hard copy of the revised language. I was appalled to read and understand it when I got home, since I understood what it meant to ALL homeschoolers, and not just people who wanted to withdraw their children from public schools. However, NHELD's statement, released that day, mentioned only what the change in language meant to the enrollment issue; it did not mention what the damage could be to the rest of us at all. It was not until March 21st that NHELD released an "Updated Interpretation of the Gaffey version of SB 162" acknowledging that they did not realize the entire ramifications of the bill until someone else pointed it out to them.

I myself would love to hear a balanced discussion about the realities of what can occur. I had originally thought hearing Deborah Stevenson speak in person would be enough, but now I'm realizing the importance of both sides being heard. So I continue relying on the opinions of people on the homeschooling lists. My own tendencies keep oscillating. If this bill goes through as it is currently written, it will be the beginning of oversight in a state which has been entirely free of it. But if we don't manage to get it changed and push it through, we will only have the same problems when we try again next year. Plus future homeschoolers will continue to be harassed.



Anonymous said...

Good overview. I say Kill the Bill! Letting it go through any more discussion is just asking for regulation.