Thursday, April 3, 2008

Backdoor Dealings

originally published in the Hartford Advocate April 3, 2008

Backdoor Dealings

A proposed bill that would get DCF off the back of homeschooling parents is caught in a political war between competing lawmakers

By Jennifer Abel

There's a bait-and-switch scam going on in the General Assembly where the homeschooling bill 162 is concerned.

Originally proposed by Rep. Arthur O'Neill, it's supposed to clarify a legal hitch causing problems for Connecticut parents who homeschool.

Here's the deal: when parents withdraw their children from school to teach them at home, the schools have been calling the Department of Children and Families and reporting the parents for "educational neglect." We wrote about this last summer: in all cases the charges against the families were deemed "unsubstantiated," but defending such charges is stressful and expensive for the families.

The problem is that state law doesn't really specify what a parent must do to withdraw his children. So O'Neill proposed a bill which, if ratified, would modify section 10-220 of the state statutes, which lists "Duties of boards of education." Under O'Neill's bill, if a parent sends written notice of intent to withdraw his kids, "the local or regional board of education shall accept such notice and shall deem the child withdrawn immediately."

This draft went to the Legislative Commissioner's Office to be written in bill form, and came out entirely different: the LCO version says nothing about the duties of school boards but would alter section 10-184 of the statutes, "Duties of parents." And it says that if a parent "intends to provide the child with equivalent instruction" at home and sends a letter saying so, the school principal or superintendent "shall immediately accept such notice as evidence the child is receiving equivalent instruction."

Deborah Stevenson, an attorney who heads NHELD (National Home Education Legal Defense), finds this unacceptable. "It's not enough to accept the letter, you must consider the child withdrawn," she argues. "Evidence is not proof."

Besides, acceptance of the letters isn't really the problem: "School districts were accepting them, but not considering the children withdrawn, then calling DCF and charging them with educational neglect."

The new language came out just before the Children's Committee held a public hearing on the bill. "[They] announced a hearing on the original language, but didn't ... realize the language had changed before the hearing." So they voted to revert back to O'Neill's original.

Then the bill went to the Education Committee, where Sen. Thomas Gaffey and Rep. Andrew Fleischmann sit. The Education Committee, in turn, rewrote the bill.

"The last day, Gaffey comes out at committee meetings with another version of this bill with revised language. Nobody asked him to," Stevenson said. Gaffey's "evidence" version, according to Stevenson's interpretation, would not provide parents a way to withdraw their children, but instead give schools authority to decide whether or not to remove a child from its rolls.

And one more thing, Stevenson said, "Gaffey ... said 'O'Neill is fine with this [new] language.'"

Rep. O'Neill disagreed. "I never said 'I support this language' to anybody," he told us.

And what does he think about the changes to his bill?

"Unfortunately, the Education Committee leadership feel that given the choice between listening to Deborah Stevenson or the Department of Education, they'll give the benefit of the doubt to folks they feel are expert, neutral types."

With due respect, we said, we weren't certain the Department of Education could be called "neutral" toward a law which would remove children from their jurisdiction.

"I think the department does have a bit of a bias," O'Neill said. "They may acknowledge there's a right [to homeschool], but I think they're deeply skeptical."

Homeschool advocates like Stevenson feel the Education Committee version of the bill is even worse than the current status quo, we noted.

"Yeah," O'Neill said. "For the first time, it would require parents offer formal notice ... in my bill, once you get that piece of paper, that would be the end of the discussion," O'Neill said.

One more thing, we said: reading the new version of the bill, we couldn't figure out what, exactly, a parent must do for his kids to be withdrawn from school.

"I think you've got it right. The way it's written, if a school takes the attitude 'we own the children,' this helps them. They can go to a judge and say 'may,' not 'must'... it opens the door to aggressive lawyering."

Sen. Gaffey did not return our calls but Rep. Fleischmann did, and said the homeschoolers' concerns about the rewording of the bill were unfounded. "They're mistaken," he says of critics of his version of the bill. "Bills can be worded many ways and accomplish the same ends."

We said that O'Neill himself had concerns with the revisions to his bill.

"That's interesting," said Fleischmann, "because he had discussions with ... Senator Gaffey ... [and said] he was comfortable with the language we were working on.

We indicated O'Neill had told us otherwise.

"I'm really disappointed at the mismatch between the statements Rep. O'Neill made [in the legislature] and what he's saying [to us]," Fleischmann said. "Apparently he changed his mind."

We called O'Neill again to discuss our chat with Fleischmann.

"I explained to [Fleischmann] I was doing this on the homeschoolers' behalf, and they were not happy ... that was the only conversation I had with him," O'Neill said.