Massachusetts Home Education: Information for Superintendents
Ten Points from the Supreme Judicial Court's Decisions
Last updated August 8, 2002
School District Policies Must Be in Keeping with Court DecisionsThis document aims to assist school district officials in understanding the Commonwealth's home education law so that they may align their policies with that law. By reviewing the relevant statutes and court decisions when developing home education policies, school districts will be able to ensure that their policies and language do not go outside the boundaries of statutory language and court decisions.
Legitimate considerations for school officials who are reviewing home education proposals are delineated in two Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decisions:
Care and Protection of Charles (1987)
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that school committees may enforce certain reasonable educational requirements in the case of home education. The Court also cautioned superintendents and school committees that homeschool approvals must not be conditioned on requirements that are not essential to the State interest in ensuring that "all children shall be educated." The Court then issued some guidelines for approval of home education proposals.
Brunelle v. Lynn Public Schools (1998)
In this unanimous Supreme Judicial Court Opinion, the Court ruled that home visits could not be mandated as a condition of approval of a home education plan. The decision also observed that "in certain important ways [home education] can never be the equivalent of in-school education." The Court ruled that any requirement made in evaluating home education proposals must be not only reasonable, but also essential.
Each school district maintains its own home education policies, which must be in keeping with the guidelines of these two court cases.
Ten Points from the Supreme Judicial Court's DecisionsOur observations on the rulings are included in italics following each point.
Copyright 2001, 2002 by Massachusetts Home Learning Association and Massachusetts Homeschool Organization of Parent Educators. Pages may be freely copied provided that the following sentence is included with any citation: Information for Superintendents is provided by MHLA (mhla.org) and MassHOPE (masshope.org) and can be found in its entirety at either one of those sites.
- "[H]ome education proposals can be made subject only to essential and reasonable requirements" (Brunelle at 519)
The Court in Brunelle noted that parents have a protected right to raise their children and further that "'the government may not intrude unnecessarily on familial privacy,'" [Curtis v. School Comm. Of Falmouth as cited in Brunelle at 519]
In denying the Lynn School Committee the right to require home visits of all families seeking approval for a home education plan, the Court observed that Lynn had failed to make the case that such visits were essential to protection of the State's interest in seeing that children receive an education.
Extending the reasoning of the Court, it is appropriate to consider every requirement by a school committee in terms of whether or not it is essential in order to carry out the review and approval of the education plan.
- Charles determined that home education came under this provision of the General Law: that superintendents shall approve instruction that "equals in thoroughness and efficiency, and in the progress made therein, that in the public school in the same town." General Laws Chap 76 The school committee may enforce "certain reasonable educational requirements similar to those required for public and private schools." (Charles at 336)
Neither Charles nor Brunelle discusses specifically what "equal in thoroughness and efficiency" means. Still, statements of the Court can provide some guidance:
- Charles states that the superintendent may require some form of assessment to "ensure educational progress and the attainment of minimum standards." (Charles at 340) Here the Court indicates that homeschoolers should not be held to any higher standard than the minimum required of public school students.
- Brunelle states that the superintendent can "insist that the child's education be moved along in a way which can be objectively measured," but he "cannot apply institutional standards to this non-institutional setting." (Brunelle at 517) [see ruling #10 for the full citation from Brunelle]
- Charles states that the superintendent may not "dictate the manner in which the subjects will be taught." Such a policy would "involve the school authorities in an activity beyond the legitimate scope of the State interest involved." (Charles at 339)
- Charles, quoting an earlier case, observes that "the great object of these provisions of the [compulsory attendance] statutes has been that all children shall be educated, not that they shall be educated in any particular way." (Charles at 337)
Extending the reasoning of the court, it is appropriate that:
- The superintendent not look for replication of the public schools' grade equivalent educational offerings. A home educated student may study certain subjects and acquire certain skills at different stages in the learning sequence than those planned for in the public school curriculum plan.
- The superintendent not require the progress of home educated students to be exemplary in any way.
- The superintendent expect a very broad range of progress from home educated students, just as is expected from the students in his schools.
- The superintendent not expect homeschooled students to follow the curriculum of the public school 'just in case' the student may subsequently be enrolled in that school. There is no legitimate justification for such an expectation.
- Charles provided guidance that school committees MAY use.
In 1987, Charles offered "guidance on the extent to which approval of a home school proposal may be conditioned on certain requirements without infringing on the liberty interests of the parents under the Fourteenth Amendment." (Charles at 337)
The guidance in Charles is reiterated in Brunelle.
Note that Charles says "may," not must. Some superintendents choose the route of minimal oversight. Such a route can be justified by the fact that there is no evidence or indication that more stringent district oversight results in greater progress for home educated students.
Parental commitment is the most important single factor in student educational progress. See "Parental Involvement" article. Homeschool parents clearly have such involvement, and their involvement exists independently of any district oversight. See research by Brian Ray
- Guidance about subjects taught.
Charles lists the subjects that are required in G. L. c. 71 §1. "Specifically, § 1 requires 'instruction and training in orthography, reading, writing, the English language and grammar, geography, arithmetic, drawing, music, the history and constitution of the United States, the duties of citizenship, health education, physical education and good behavior." (Charles at 338)
The General Laws require training in these subjects over the course of the child's education. No particular subject is required to be taught in any given year.
- Guidance about competency of parents.
Charles explains that the parents need not be certified teachers, nor need they have college or advanced academic degrees.
Research shows that credentials of the parent have little to do with achievement of the child. See research by Patricia Lines, also by Lawrence Rudner and Brian Ray.
Our experience shows us that parents who are "so committed to home education that they are willing to forgo the public schools, and devote substantial time and energy to teaching their children" (Brunelle 518) are well able to facilitate their children's learning.
Parents are often facilitators, finding resources to help children learn. We have discovered that some of the most effective learning actually happens when parent and child are learning together; children are motivated by the awareness that they themselves can contribute to an adult's learning process.
- Guidance about hours of instruction.
Though the superintendent may consider the length of the school year and the hours of instruction in each subject, it's important to note that there is no state requirement for a certain number of hours in a certain subject. The Department of Education, on its website, confirms that "there is no regulation requiring a certain number of hours for any subject."
Note that the Court does not mention that the school district may require parents to provide a specific schedule.
Since homeschooling occurs in a non-institutional setting, most students excel with fewer hours of formal instruction than is required in the public schools. See Court rulings point 10
- Guidance about instructional materials.
Charles provides for the superintendent or school committee to have access to textbooks, workbooks, and other instructional aids, as well as to lesson plans and teaching manuals. The Court observes that this access is necessary "only to determine the type of subjects to be taught and the grade level of the instruction for comparison purposes with the curriculum of the public schools. The superintendent or school committee may not use this access to dictate the manner in which the subjects will be taught. This would involve the school authorities in an activity beyond the legitimate scope of the State interest involved." (Charles at 339)
Brunelle observes that "some of the most effective curricular materials that the plaintiffs may use may not be tangible. For example, travel, community service, visits to educationally enriching facilities and places, and meeting with various resource people, can provide important learning experiences apart from the four corners of a text or workbook." (Brunelle at 518)
Homeschoolers have the enviable ability to customize learning materials to the students' abilities and specific interests. The parents are free to select whatever materials are effective; superintendents do not "approve" homeschoolers' instructional materials.
- Guidance about evaluation
Charles provides for various means of assessment: periodic standardized testing or other means of evaluating the children's progress. Other means may include "periodic progress reports or dated work samples." (Charles at 340)
If standardized testing is used, Charles provides that "in consultation with parents, the school authorities may decide where the testing is to occur and the type of testing instrument to be used. Where practical, a neutral party should administer the test." (Charles at 340)
In the years since Charles was decided, professional educators have been turning their attention to alternative assessment practices, and there is now a growing body of literature on the subject. See ERIC Digest article
In 1987 most school assessment was generally equated with testing, although homeschool families often used portfolios, work products, and reports instead.
Charles wisely kept the door open for such emerging assessment techniques, which, indeed, have become commonplace in schools, as well as homeschools, during the past decade.
- Home visits cannot be mandated.
The Brunelle case decided that issue. The Court ruled that "school officials cannot, in the absence of consent, require home visits, as a condition of approval of the [parents'] home education plans." (Brunelle at 519) The ruling rested on the finding that "the home visits sought to be imposed on the education proposals of the plaintiffs are not essential." (Brunelle at 519)
- Institutional standards cannot be applied to this non-institutionalized setting.
From the Brunelle decision:
"Parents who teach at home stand in a very different relationship to their children than do teachers to a class full of other peoples' children. Teaching methods may be less formalized, but in the home setting may be more effective than those used in the classroom because the teacher-to-student ratio is maximized, a factor permitting close communication and monitoring on an individualized basis. It is obvious from these differences that, while the State can insist that the child's education be moved along in a way which can be objectively measured, it cannot apply institutional standards to this non-institutionalized setting." (Brunelle at 517)
Here the Court implicitly recognizes that individualized instruction of their own children allows parents a flexibility impossible in the classroom. Superintendents may not impede on that flexibility by making nonessential requirements of parents.
August 2002 edition
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