A public school superintendent has sent police in squad cars to the houses of homeschooling families to deliver his demand that they appear for a “pre-trial hearing” to prove they are in compliance with the law.
Bruce Dennison, regional superintendent of schools in Bureau, Stark, and Henry counties in Northeastern Illinois, has contacted more than 22 families, insisting that they need his approval to conduct education at home.
Dennison is exceeding his authority, according to Chris Klicka of the Home School Legal Defense Association, or HSLDA, who argues that homeschooling is legal in Illinois and families do not need school district approval to teach their own children.
“He’s muscling the homeschoolers pretty heavily,” Klicka told WorldNetDaily. “One truant officer told a family that he ‘could take away the kids if he wanted to.'”
Also, a state’s attorney has threatened to prosecute families that do not submit to requests to have their program approved, said Klicka.
But state law is straightforward and simple, Klicka insists. A 1950 Illinois Supreme Court decision, People v. Levisen, established that homeschooling falls under the requirements of a private school. Private schools are required only to teach the same branches of instruction as public schools and to do it in the English language.
HSLDA characterizes the situation in Illinois as one of many around the nation in which school districts and government officials are seeking to wield greater control over home-based education. The U.S. now has as many as 2 million homeschoolers, according to some estimates.
The state of California is warning parents that they cannot educate their children at home without acquiring a professional teaching credential. Officials maintain this stance despite a statute that allows any parent to homeschool under a private school exemption. Homeschool defenders note that districts are motivated to keep as many children in public school as possible because funds are allotted per student.
Not much structure
Dennison told WorldNetDaily that it is the policy of his office to not to comment on specific cases, but emphasized that in Illinois there is no statute on homeschooling.
“So we are relying upon court cases as well as the compulsory attendance law,” he said. “I think that is extremely important in the homeschooling process, because that does not give much structure.”
Dennison said that “in some instances in which folks have chosen not to share information about their schooling with our office, we have asked that they attend a meeting prior to court action being taken, that may be referenced as a pre-trial hearing.”
“It’s another opportunity to have a conversation about what in fact parents are doing about the homeschooling of their child,” he said.
Klicka maintains, however, that other superintendents in Illinois accept the procedure for homeschooling in the state that his group advises, which is to prepare a “statement of assurance.”
If a family is contacted, according to Klicka, they say, “We’ve established a private school in our home pursuant to the Levison case. We’re teaching the same branches of instruction as public schools.”
But Christine Fortune told WND that two squad cars showed up at her house in Geneseo, Ill., in Henry County, in late October to deliver a letter demanding that she appear at a “pre-trial” hearing.
One police cruiser pulled into her driveway, another parked on the street. One policeman then accompanied a truant officer and case worker to her door, while the other police officer waited in his car.
“I was very angry,” said Fortune, who homeschools her 14-year-old daughter Stephanie. “[My children] were really perplexed why the police were coming for me. It was way overkill for something that was not even a certified, subpoena kind of letter. It was just something they could have popped in the mail.”
Fortune, who served as a substitute public school teacher in the country for about 10 years, said she had homeschooled prior to this school year without any interference.
Klicka said that if a superintendent had evidence that a family is lying or is fraudulent, he should refer it to the prosecutor, but “this superintendent is thinking, ‘I’ve got to approve the curriculum, I’ve got to check up on the parents.'”
Homeschoolers are under no legal obligation to attend “pre-trial hearings,” which have no standards or guarantees, Klicka maintains.
“They’re not really ‘pre-trial’ because there are no charges filed,” he said. “It’s just part of the intimidation tactics.”
When questioned, the state’s attorney, Patrick J. Herrmann of Bureau County, had no idea what standards would be used to judge a homeschooler’s curriculum, Klicka said.
On Oct. 18, just four or five days prior to the police-escorted visit to Fortune’s house, the homeschool mother allowed a case worker from the school district to come into her home. HSLDA contends that mandatory home visits are violations of a family’s right to privacy and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.
“On the phone, [the case worker] said she wanted to review the curriculum and see if I needed any help – is how she was phrasing it,” Fortune said.
The case worker was escorted to a room to see the computer-based curriculum Fortune’s daughter uses.
“The beauty of that program is it’s perfect for any questions she would have,” Fortune said. “It has a record of grades and the things that have been done and lesson plans. I could have just produced that for her very easily, but she never asked.”
Instead, said Fortune, the case worker “was fixated on attendance records.”
That struck Fortune as being rather odd: “I said, ‘I don’t do that – we don’t punch a time clock. I just write down what we do.'”
“I kept telling her,” said Fortune, “‘[My children] live here; they haven’t been absent once from the home.'”
Dennison would not comment on Fortune’s case, citing policy, but said police have been asked to accompany truant officers and case workers in a “very low profile, in a very courteous manner.”
Dennison bases his approach on a memo issued by the Illinois State Board of Education’s legal department, which cites the 1974 federal court ruling Scoma vs. Chicago Board of Education. The memo says “the court emphasized that the burden of proof rests with the parents to establish that the plan of home instruction which they are providing to their children meets the state requirements.”
The position paper says that “if the regional superintendent is dissatisfied with the parents’ ability and/or willingness to establish that home instruction in a specific instance satisfies the requirements of state law, the regional superintendent may request that regional or school district truant officer to investigate to see that the child is in compliance with the compulsory attendance law.”
In a brief on Illinois state law, the HSLDA notes that Scoma v. Chicago Board of Education “found the Levisen decision to be ‘reasonable and constitutional.'”
In the Levisen case, HSLDA says, “the Illinois Supreme Court emphasized the right of parents to control their children’s education.”
Levisen held that: “Compulsory education laws are enacted to enforce the natural obligations of parents to provide an education for their young, an obligation which corresponds to the parents’ right of control over the child. (Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 400.) The object is that all shall be educated not that they shall be educated in any particular manner or place.”
Since the police visit, Fortune has been referring all communication to HSLDA, which is helping three other families who are in a similar situation. Membership with the Virginia-based group allows homeschool families to take advantage of their legal resources.
Klicka said he is advising his member families not to go to the hearings or allow home visits but to “stand on a simple letter declaring they are legally homeschooling as a private school.”
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