More than 25 years ago the Home Education Advisory Council (HEAC) was established in New Hampshire statute to help the state Department of Education and various other associations better understand homeschooling and solve problems before they escalated.
But is HEAC posing a potential threat to homeschoolers? It would seem so.
HEAC’s 2016 annual report written by Chairman, Amy Gall, a homeschool representative from the NH Homeschooling Coalition, was submitted to the state Board of Education and discussed at their September meeting. Per the BOE’s minutes, Dr. Virginia Barry, commissioner of the state Department of Education, said the following:
“…the [HEAC] report addendum recommendations/observations reflect a paradigm shift from previous home school parents wanting a “hands off” approach from the department to one involving more involvement/collaboration.”
This will encourage more interference from the BOE, the body responsible for writing home education rules (Ed 315) that have the same force as law. It also invites the DOE to seek legislative efforts to restrict and inhibit homeschooling in our state.
Is this in the best interests of NH’s homeschool community?
One of HEAC recommendations is for the Department of Education to fill a vacant seat with a representative from the Division of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF). To date DCYF has not provided HEAC with a report on home educational neglect or attended a meeting to discuss the issue. Nonetheless HEAC is seeking to add DCYF as a sitting and voting member of the council.
Going through the last three years of meeting minutes, it appears that there were concerns that one public-school family was suspected of child abuse who then filed to homeschool their child (June 2015). They shortly returned to the public school per the September 2015 minutes. There is one other vague reference in the January 2013 minutes pertaining to concerns with one family. Other than to indicate the family consulted with the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), there is no mention how it was resolved. There was also a brief note in the October 2015 minutes that a district superintendent suspected that a student was withdrawn from public school to babysit a younger sibling. Per the minutes the family was reported to DCYF and they responded that they do not investigate families for educational neglect. While child abuse is abhorrent and not to be taken lightly, how are these homeschooling issues, particularly the spring 2015 case involving a child who was and is again enrolled in the local public school?
The February 2016 minutes indicate that Ms. Heather Gage of the NH Department of Education was requested to obtain DCYF statistics of any homeschool educational neglect cases. Similarly the March 2016 minutes indicate that Ms. Gage was to provide a report on educational neglect after consulting with Health and Human Services. There is no indication that a report was filed in any of the subsequent meeting minutes. There is also no indication that representatives from DCYF or HHS ever attended a HEAC meeting to discuss these concerns. Despite the lack of evidence of wide-spread home educational neglect cases, these isolated cases are being associated with homeschooling by a body that is supposed to represent the interests of the larger homeschool community. Instead HEAC is enabling the BOE, DOE, and DCYF to conflate homeschooling with neglect and abuse, and inviting additional interference from them.
We addressed our concerns to Ms. Amy Gall on October 11th asking for clarification. She responded:
“Actually, the issue does not have to do with a lack of evaluation information. We used to know how many cases of educational neglect were being investigated because DHHS sent them to the DOE for a due process hearing. The 2012 law eliminated that mechanism, and now all suspected cases of educational neglect are processed directly by DHHS. Not only does this leave us in the dark, but the potential consequences to families are greater (educational probation vs. removal of children).
The intention is to establish a dialogue between the HEAC and DHHS employees who are not experts in education in general or home education in particular. A request for information form has been submitted by the DOE to DHHS. The HEAC is still waiting for a response to both that request and the request for a DHHS staff member to fill the empty DOE HEAC seat.”
We followed up with additional questions:
Have there been reports of educational neglect to DHHS or DCYF involving homeschooling families? If so, how many have there been in recent years and what were the outcomes of the investigations?
If this is a major concern, why have DHHS or DCYF representatives not provided reports to HEAC or attended meetings to discuss this further? If those steps haven’t happened, why is HEAC seeking to install them as permanent and voting members of the council? Do you believe it is in the homeschooling community’s best interests to have DHHS and DCYF on a home education board?
The 2015-2016 Annual Report specifically refers to the year-end reporting change [made by HB 1571 (2012)] as creating a situation “in which suspected cases of home-educational neglect are difficult to identify or track.” If homeschoolers are suspected of educational neglect, why can’t DCYF still work with the Department of Education to investigate further? If HEAC believes a significant problem exists, why hasn’t the council put suggestions forward to resolve them, at least as recorded in the meeting minutes?
To date we have not received any additional reply from Ms. Gall.
We also reached out to the legislative members of HEAC: Representatives Glenn Cordelli and Barbara Shaw, and Senator Kevin Avard. They are all strong supporters of homeschoolers and expressed great concern when learning of HEAC’s intention to put DCYF on the council.
Back in 2009 and 2010 there were legislative efforts spearheaded by then Rep. Judy Day and Rep. Emma Rous (who now sits on the state BOE) that would have created some of the most draconian homeschool laws in the country. Thankfully those efforts were defeated by a sustained and wide-spread network of support from homeschoolers, friendly legislators, and other allies.
Further, these phantom educational neglect concerns and other comments in the HEAC 2015 and 2016 annual reports may be used to justify reinstating the law requiring homeschoolers to provide year-end evaluations to their Participating Agencies. In 2012 HB 1571 (the law referenced in the HEAC reports and in Ms. Gall’s reply) was enacted to remove the year-end reporting requirement because some SAU superintendents used it to threaten and discourage homeschooling in their districts. Homeschoolers had an unfair testing requirement (composite score at or above the 40th percentile on standardized tests) and consequences relative to the public schools. Prior to enacting HB 1571 superintendents had the ability to terminate homeschool programs after only two years of under-performing results and force students back into the school system. On the other hand, public schools and their students faced no consequences for sub-par results; schools were not shut down and students were not forcibly removed from failing schools. Yet those were the possible consequences for homeschoolers. It was a lopsided expectation given that our public schools have continued to perform poorly on statewide assessments. HB 1571 also created a cooperative environment for homeschooling families and local school districts to support struggling students, instead of punishing them for only two sub-par evaluations. Parents are still required to perform either a teacher evaluation or year-end test; the only difference is that the results are private and need not be submitted to Participating Agencies for tacit approval.
It is very troubling that HEAC is giving the state BOE, DOE, and DCYF the opportunity to take away hard-won homeschooling freedoms and potentially institute very restrictive new laws and rules.
At a time when DCYF resources are stretched so thin that they are challenged to serve existing clients and cases, it is grossly inappropriate to direct a representative to be named to the Home Education Advisory Council.
We urge homeschoolers to let HEAC know that homeschooling should not be conflated with abuse or neglect and that DCYF should not be given a seat on the council.
HEAC’s next meeting is November 10th at 3:30pm at the NH DOE’s office, 101 Pleasant Street in Concord. Please attend their meeting or contact HEAC expressing your opinions on these matters. Their emails are listed below.
Cara Barlow, unschooler firstname.lastname@example.org
Marc Boyd, NH Association of School Principals email@example.com
Barrett Christina, NH School Board Association firstname.lastname@example.org
George D’Orazio, Catholics United for Home Education email@example.com
Heather Gage, NH Department of Education firstname.lastname@example.org
Amy Gall, NH Homeschooling Coalition email@example.com
Jennifer Pereira, Catholics United for Home Education firstname.lastname@example.org
Helen Rist, NH School Administrators Association email@example.com
Sen. Kevin Avard Kevin.Avard@leg.state.nh.us
Rep. Glenn Cordelli firstname.lastname@example.org
Rep. Barbara Shaw email@example.com