Home-schoolers object to new sign-up deadline
MONTPELIER — More than 100 home-schooling parents plan to descend on a meeting of the State Board of Education in Stowe today to protest a new policy they say infringes on their right to teach their children at home.
Efforts by the Vermont Department of Education to crack down on truancy have provoked parents of some of the approximately 2,300 children being home-schooled across the state.
Department officials say the new policy is designed to protect vulnerable youth. By setting a Labor Day deadline for enrollment in home-school programs, one department official said Monday, the state aims to crack down on irresponsible parents who invoke the home-schooling option midyear simply to avoid legal scrutiny of their truant children.
“Unfortunately there are a small number of parents who for whatever reason decline or try to decline to educate their kids,” said Mark Oettinger, general counsel for the Department of Education. “And it seems that in this handful of cases, one of the strategies that has grown up is to just submit a compulsory home-study enrollment notice to the Department of Education as an attempt to stop the truancy process.”
In a July 23 memorandum issued to parents of home-schooled children, as well as principals, superintendents and prosecutors who deal with truancy cases, Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca outlines the new policy, in which the department will, in most instances, refuse to accept home-schooling applications after Labor Day.
“Enrollment in a Vermont home study program is intended to be for a complete school year,” Vilaseca wrote. “I do not interpret the home study statute in a manner that allows parents to ignore Vermont’s compulsory attendance requirements.”
Retta Dunlap, the home-school advocate largely responsible for organizing today’s protest, said she appreciates Vilaseca’s desire to combat truancy. But she said the state needs to find a way to solve the problem without treading on the legal rights of parents who want to teach their children in the home.
“They may be wanting to catch a few bad apples, and I understand that,” Dunlap said. “But language in the statute does not allow them to do it in this way.”
Dunlap, a registered lobbyist, said she helped former Education Commissioner Richard Cate draft Vermont’s home-schooling law. She said the statute includes no deadlines by which parents must submit their enrollment applications.
Allowing the commissioner to set arbitrary deadlines, she said, leads Vermont down a slippery slope toward the erosion of parental rights.
“Home schooling isn’t under attack in Vermont per se, but this is definitely like the camel’s nose in the tent,” said Dunlap, a Woodbury resident. “If he can unilaterally say no to this kind of enrollment notice, what can he say no to next?”
Oettinger said there is no constitutional right to home schooling and that the department is within its authority to establish reasonable deadlines to thwart would-be lawbreakers.
The new deadline won’t apply to home-schooling parents who moved to Vermont from out of state.
Dunlap said she expects more than 100 parents to attend the state board’s 9 a.m. meeting at Stowe High School. She said only three parents will speak, so as not to unduly disrupt the board’s daylong meeting.
“We’re not going to ask the state board to force him to withdraw the policy, because I’m not sure they could anyway,” Dunlap said. “But we are registering our protest here that this is so, so not in line with what statute says.”
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