Dear Ohio School Superintendent,
You've got your hands full. I get that. You have to balance many important and sometimes competing issues. You may be the CEO of your school district, but you have to meet the demands and expectations of the school board, principals, teachers, parents, students, and community.
The school board is basically your boss, but since they are elected to their positions, you may have to adapt to changing requirements and personalities of the board every few years.
You know the most important goal of your position is to meet the needs of the students in your district, but you must also implement current changes in curriculum and methodology like Common Core Standards, update teacher evaluation systems, and divide your personnel and financial resources prudently while aiming for maximum impact. This may be discouraging if you believe the changes are not in the best interests of your students.
I haven't even mentioned the political pressures yet, of staying connected with your staff, being pursued by the media, and occupying the hot seat with parents in your community. Even though you are constantly surrounded by people, you may sometimes feel isolated trying to remain objective and keep all of these pressures in perspective.
See? I told you I get it.
How much more disconcerting it must be to have to deal with homeschool parents. You may see us as citizens who have abandoned the ship of community. How can we be supportive of education but not participate in it by registering our children at our local school? Even though homeschooling has been a viable option for decades (and for eons before that), you are deeply invested in the success of the schools in your district, and you want everyone in the community fully on board.
For those of you who don't know what I'm referring to, in Ohio, the local superintendent's office has to process Homeschool Notifications and send excuse letters to homeschool parents so their children are exempted from compulsory attendance.
Paperwork floods your offices from July to September, right at the time you and your staff are trying to gear up to meet the education demands of families who are in the system. And yet, here you are, with an itty-bitty 14 day window in which to review each Homeschool Notification for compliance, and respond quickly with excuse letters to families who will be completely unfazed by all your efforts to improve the schools in your district.
There are times when you don't even know the laws have changed in a way that will affect how your office interacts with homeschoolers. In 2014, one sentence was altered in a small section of the Ohio Revised Code 3321.04 describing where parents were to send their Homeschool Notifications. It used to require us to send our notifications to the
“city or exempted village school district or the educational service center”.
This was revised to read
“the superintendent of the school district in which the child resides”.
Suddenly there was this question of where homeschool parents should send their notifications. School superintendents I spoke to (trying to help parents in my local homeschool support group) had no idea such a change had been made, or how it would affect them.
In other words, you really didn't get the memo.
When speaking to homeschoolers about what they planned to do, some felt that it didn't matter where notifications are mailed because the educational service center was tasked with processing the forms on behalf of the school superintendent, so they were still complying with the law if they sent them to the educational service center (referred to as the ESC).
Others believed that because both the Ohio Administrative Code and Ohio Revised Code now instruct homeschooling parents to send their notification directly to the school superintendent, then homeschoolers must follow the Ohio Code to the letter, and any inconvenience this causes the superintendent's office is not their problem.
I used to think this wasn't a hill to die on. I mean, the forms are being processed, so who cares if you do it yourself or contract with another educational office to do so on your behalf? The mountains of paper generated to complete the simplest task is just downright annoying. I sympathized with our local school district offices trying to deal with this mess every year.
But lately my mind has changed a little on this. More and more homeschool families are being challenged and harassed because school officials don't know or understand the law. Parents receive letters, calls, and visits accusing them of truancy when they are, in fact, in total compliance with the OAC and ORC statutes governing homeschooling. Sometimes, even after repeatedly demonstrating their obedience to the law, the badgering continues and even escalates into threats.
Here's the thing - the Ohio Administrative Code 3301-34 Excuses from Compulsory Attendance for Home Education is not complicated. Sure, it's written in legalese, but it's not that bad.
So when it says homeschool parents are to provide a "brief outline of the intended curriculum for the current year" and a "list of textbooks, correspondence courses, commercial curricula, or other basic teaching materials that the parent intends to use for home education", and that this outline and list is "for informational purposes only", I would assume that you would just review this information on each notification and move on.
Oh no - dozens of homeschoolers are getting letters and phone calls 'denying' their homeschool notification because their outline wasn't 'complete enough'. They didn't create a separate outline for each child. They didn't include a grade level.
I don't intend to sound disrespectful or condescending, but I feel the urge to spell this out for you. "For informational purposes only" means it is not information on which you can base your review for compliance. If the list and outline are there, then the homeschool parent has complied with the law.
Furthermore and hitherto, you must, within 14 days of receiving the notification, "state in writing the specific respects in which the information is incomplete". Not 14 days after your office opens. Not 14 days after your secretary opens the envelope. Not via phone calls. "Incomplete" according to the Ohio Administrative Code 3301-34 Paragraph A, not a personal preference or wishful thinking.
It gets worse - ONLY after requesting missing information in writing, and ONLY if the homeschool parent remains non-compliant, the ONLY reason a superintendent can 'deny' an excuse from compulsory attendance is if the "superintendent has substantial evidence that the minimum educational requirements of paragraph (A) of this rule will not be met, the superintendent shall declare his or her intent to deny the excuse."
Why, oh why, are homeschool families receiving phone calls (not allowed by law) and letters 'denying' a homeschool notification because they didn't provide grade levels for their kids (not required by law), or photocopy the Table of Contents of all their textbooks (not required by law)? What happened to school officials complying with the law and the standards of "substantial evidence"?
The notification form is the parent's promise that they will provide their child with an education, therefore the completed and signed notification form is the proof that the parent will comply with the law and educate their child.
When government officials ignore the law and then treat law-abiding citizens like criminals, it does not improve public relations or increase the credibility of the local school district. I mean, could you be influenced to put your child into a system apparently run by folks who appeared to be uninformed and negligent, as well as belligerent? In spite of the authority of your office, it is not appropriate for your or your staff to intimidate families into registering their kids for the local school.
I really do wish I could remove some of the frustration and anxiety from your job, and help you improve relations with the parents in your district. After all this ranting you might not believe me, but it's true. I don't enjoy the antagonistic attitudes that arise in both homeschoolers and public school officials every summer and fall.
After 20 years of helping homeschoolers with their notifications, I'm thinking more superintendents in Ohio should know better. However, I see the same things year after year after year, and I'm banging my head on the keyboard wondering "WHYWHYWHYWHYWHY?"
Let me remind everyone - although homeschooling families may not send their children to their local public school, they pay taxes, they are fully capable of voting at local elections, and a few homeschoolers have even run for school boards.
Why would homeschoolers care about the schools in their district? I'm glad you asked. Because homeschoolers ARE invested in education. Nothing says 'put your money where your mouth is' like homeschooling. We may have chosen a different academic path for our child, and some of us may lack confidence in the public education system -
But we are not the enemy.
Ignorance and bigotry are the enemies.
Your staff, including school principals and teachers in your district, need to read and understand the Ohio Administrative Code - Chapter 3301-34 Excuses from Compulsory Attendance for Home Education. It is a fairly simple process and clearly outlines how much (or how little) accountability exists between homeschooling families and school district officials.
- It describes the notification process.
- It clearly states what information the parent is required to provide. We do not need to give our phone number, marital status, grade levels, social security numbers, or medical records.
- The outline of intended curriculum and list of textbooks or teaching materials we are asked to include is described in the law as brief - which I admit could be three words for one parent and three pages for another. But that's what the OAC says. "Brief". Just walk down the street and in a few minutes you will probably see a pair of briefs. Ain't much to 'em. Get it?
- This information is clearly marked as "for informational purposes only", so it should be understood that it can't be used to 'approve' or 'deny' an excuse from compulsory attendance.
We both know that school boards, superintendents, principals and teachers cannot reinterpret or add to the law to suit themselves. We must all comply with the laws of this state, and being a government official or employee does not grant anyone the power to ignore the law or re-imagine it.
This law was crafted to preserve the rights and freedoms granted to citizens in our United States Constitution. It was crafted to limit government. We do not need permission to choose an educational method for our children, and our children do not belong to the school district or the state.
So in spite of my earlier sympathies about how inconvenient it must be for your office to have to comb through hundreds (thousands?) of homeschool notifications right before school starts, and forward all those homeschool notifications to the local ESC for processing, I'm not responsible for that boondoggle. Neither are the many homeschooling families in your district who just want their excuse letter so they can get on with their lives and let you get on with yours.
Homeschooling families need to thoroughly read and comply with the clearly stated laws in the Ohio Administrative Code and Ohio Revised Code about how to notify and to whom they should send their notification. Not a penny more or less.
You may think homeschooling (in spite of evidence to the contrary) is a bad idea. You may even look at us as the kind of involved parents you'd give your mother's teeth to have volunteering in your local schools. Maybe you wish we'd all take a long walk off a short pier.
However, the only way dealing with homeschoolers is going to get any easier is by making sure you and your staff are educated about homeschooling, require all school officials to act in accordance with the law, and interact with homeschoolers without letting your personal feelings influence how you treat them.
If there are some homeschoolers who aren't in compliance and act like idiots, well, that's on them. They don't speak for all homeschoolers any more than the incidents I've described are indicative of every school superintendent. Some school districts to their jobs, and do it very well.
I wish you well this year and in the years to come.
Susan Raber, Ohio resident and compliant homeschooler since 1996
I'd like to shout out to the Beavercreek School District, because I have lived in this area for about 13 years, and they've been wonderful. Professional and usually well-informed, cooperative and even gracious. I consider myself very blessed to have been in this area for so long and seldom have a problem with notifying or receiving my excuse letters in a timely fashion. That means something come levy time, let me tell ya'.