by Retta Dunlap
On July 23, 2012, the Commissioner of Education, Armando Vilaseca, wrote a memorandum wishing to “clarify the circumstances under which the Department will and will not accept enrollment notices for processing” for homeschooling families. In it, Vilaseca dictates that families who currently homeschool their children but file their paper work with the state after Labor Day, a date which is not found in statute, can no longer homeschool, and must enroll their children in a public or independent school. This appears to be in violation of Vermont law.
In the second paragraph of the memo, the Commissioner states: “I do not interpret the home study statute in a manner that allows parents to ignore Vermont’s compulsory attendance requirements.” However, in 2000, Karen Maple brought a case to the Vermont Supreme Court in which the Department of Education claimed that Maple’s child, T.M. was not enrolled because of the lack of an Independent Educational Plan and therefore truant. To make a long story short, the Court ruled against the Department of Education and raised three points.
First, Vermont’s home study law was written to be an “enrollment notice” with specific information included. The Commissioner has no authority to approve of the notice. The Court said, “the statute plainly confers no such authority.” This means parents fill out the paper work and give it to the Department to signal their intention to homeschool their child. The parents’ responsibility is to merely tell the proper authorities that their child will be homeschooled.
Second, the Court went on to say that the enrollment process was “plainly designed to expedite the enrollment of children in home-study programs, and to place the burden on the State to preclude enrollment solely by means of a noticed hearing.” The law states that the Department has 45 days to call such a hearing to prevent enrollment. The Court went on to say, “If the Commissioner fails to call for a hearing within forty-five days of receipt of the enrollment notice, the child is enrolled.” Mere receipt of the notice starts the time clock ticking.
Thirdly, since Maple did submit paper work to signal her intentions to homeschool her child, and the Department did not call a hearing within 45 days, her child was indeed, in the eyes of the Court, enrolled in a home study program in spite of all the other issues surrounding this case. The Department misapplied the statute and lost.
Before 1987 and the current home study statute, the Department gave approval of home study programs and would delay long past the first day of school before granting approval thus, according to the Court, making the children “technically truant”. The families tried to follow the compulsory attendance law which said they could choose a home study program, but the Department ignored their efforts. It appears the Department is going to go down that road again, and judging from the Commissioner’s memo, he intends to ignore the fact that the Department has received a notice until it decides if the notice meets its approval: that it was submitted by an arbitrary time.
The hearing process, as it stands today, protects both the rights of the parents to homeschool and the Department’s ability to protect children. Since both parents and the state are looking out for the interest of the child, the child can’t lose, right?
The commissioner’s actions, if allowed to stand, will change that. Vermont’s compulsory attendance statute is clear regarding how parents can avoid truancy: “a person having the control of a child between the ages of six and 16 years shall cause the child to attend a public school, an approved or recognized independent school, an approved education program, or a home study program….” There is no language in the Vermont statutes that says a parent cannot enroll in any of these educational settings after Labor Day thereby avoiding truancy charges. Yet, the Commissioner is taking the home study program off the table for some families who might be late with their paper work and will once again make them “technically truant”. This is a travesty of the highest kind.