Homeschoolers & Public Schools
An article I wrote for the PA Homeschoolers newsletter about the fight to preserve the opportunity for homeschooler participation in the Penn Delco, PA school district. I've added a few links and helpful notes.

Should Homeschoolers Be Allowed To Participate in Public School Classes and Activities?

How We Got a "YES" answer in Penn Delco, PA

I homeschooled my oldest son for three years. In 1998 he started third grade, attending the local public school for the first time.

That fall, my brother, who serves on the Penn Delco school board (our district), let me know that a proposal had been made to change the district's policy towards homeschoolers. The old policy had pretty much reiterated state law. The new policy would ban all services - curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular, to homeschoolers except those required by law for special education students. The board would be voting on the policy at their upcoming meeting (in about four days) and the mood seemed to be that it would pass. My brother seemed to think it was a good idea! Thrashing it out with him gave me a good idea of the board member's concerns. Basically, anything that might end up costing lots of money or setting a precedent whereby private school students would also be entitled to services was seen as a loophole that must be closed as soon as possible.

I had read of similar situations in the PA Homeschoolers newsletter, and I remembered the advice given by one author. She said to just keep getting the board to put off the vote until you were sure they'd vote your way. With very little time to do much of anything before the meeting I took that route. My plan of action included several things:

  • I put in a call to Harrisburg to get whatever information I could about the state's position. My approach has always been to go straight to the top when I have questions, and it usually pays off. In this case, though, I had trouble getting anyone before the meeting. Just goes to show that you can't rely on just one tactic to get results.
  • I called a homeschooler I knew in the district and asked her to call anyone she knew and let them know about the issue.
  • I went to the PA Homeschoolers web site and read up on the issue. I found some examples and facts about other districts that I could use.
  • I put out an e-mail to various groups and individuals asking for stories of homeschoolers' interaction with the public schools, both in Pennsylvania and in other states. I had originally intended to use their stories in a handout but in the end I decided that, because of privacy issues, I would simply use the stories as background information and speak in general terms rather than cite specific cases.
  • I ordered Deb Bell's packet on the issue. We had some kind of mailing snag so it did not arrive until after the meeting but it was incredibly useful when I did get it!
    [The packet cost $7. Basically she's compiled a huge collection of articles and forms, especially relating to sports participation. It was well worth the money. I couldn't find it on her web site; you may have to call her.]

Myself and a homeschooling father went to the meeting, and both of us spoke. I had never spoken at a meeting before, but an acquaintance who was there on another issue gave me some pointers. He said that when I spoke, the board would not answer questions or otherwise respond - it was a speech, not a dialog. I'm glad he told me this, so I was not looking for feedback on what I was saying!

I dressed carefully for the meeting - people just pay more attention to someone wearing a suit. I tried to appear calm, knowledgeable, respectful, and not demanding. I introduced myself saying that two of my children currently attend public school [we are now homeschooling again], but I had homeschooled for three years. I briefly mentioned the following points:

  • The current policy allowed the district to give services if they felt it was appropriate, but did not give homeschoolers the right to services. (Some homeschoolers feel that they have a moral right to services since they pay taxes, but in Pennsylvania they have no legal rights in this regard.) I assured the board that the current policy allowed them to judge each request for services on it's own merit and deny services in an individual case if they so chose.
  • I mentioned that most of the board members probably didn't know very much about homeschooling (again, there are so few homeschoolers in our district), so I gave them the basic legal requirements of homeschooling.
  • I shared stories of homeschoolers receiving services without putting a burden on the system, and examples of homeschoolers "giving back" by being involved. Homeschooling parents have coached sports teams, ran Junior Great Books clubs, and so on. Homeschooled kids have also volunteered in the schools.
  • For special ed. students, homeschooling can be a way around mountains of red tape and legal restrictions - sometimes a parent can pull together a good program drawing on family and community resources, but may need just a little help from the district to make it feasible. In a case like this, working with homeschoolers could save the district a substantial amount of money.
  • I compared homeschoolers to other groups who sometimes use school services and facilities, such as softball teams, exchange students, and so on.
  • I recognized that there may be concerns ("strangers" in the building, tardiness, behavior issues, etc.) but noted that most of these could be addressed with common sense and respect on both sides.
  • In general, I spoke of homeschooling as just one of several educational choices, which might make sense for a particular child. I did not try to "sell" homeschooling nor did I denigrate the public schools. I think the fact that I was a public school parent speaking on behalf of homeschooling probably helped.

The principal at the local elementary school, who had been very supportive of homeschoolers, had recently resigned. This meant that we could share stories of her support without worrying about getting her in trouble!

The homeschooling father who spoke told of his family's experiences with the schools. Among other things he had taken his children on a field trip to the district's planetarium. He also made an important point that had not occurred to me. In Pennsylvania, homeschooled kids must report to the Superintendent, who is responsible for monitoring their education. It is reasonable, therefore, to consider them students under the jurisdiction of the school district, much as you would students in home-bound instruction due to illness, or students who attend special programs at other schools. This, I think, from the board's point of view, is the most important point of all. It makes homeschoolers "us" and not "them"!

The board listened to what we had to say, and the Superintendent made a few remarks, assuring the board that she had looked into the matter carefully and researched other districts' policies (although she did not give specifics). When it came time for a vote, the motion was made. Unbelievably, no one was willing to second it. The motion thus died for lack of a second, something that my brother said he had never seen before.

They moved to discuss it at the next study session, and we came prepared with more people and more information. The Superintendent asked the high school principal to come and express his concerns, although he had not had enough notice to do any research. He raised a few minor issues (What if a homeschooler is on a sports team - how will we know if he's absent and therefore ineligible to play that day? How will we know if his schoolwork is at C level or above?) The board decided, however, that there was not enough interest to go any farther, and that the policy change would not even be put on the next meeting's agenda. (After the meeting I shared information from Deb Bell's packet with the principal, and he was very impressed and enthusiastic!)

The proposed policy is thus dead, and the existing policy, which doesn't give homeschoolers a right to services but doesn't deny them either, stands. I realize that many homeschoolers want no interaction with their district at all, but it's nice to have that path clear for those who may want or need it.