The Home Education Advisory Council (HEAC) is supposed to be a bridge between the homeschool community and representatives from the public school system and the NH Department of Education. Are they fulfilling their purpose?
The NH Home Education Advisory Council (HEAC) usually meets bimonthly, but scheduled a special meeting on Thursday, October 12th because they believed they did not have a quorum at their September 14th meeting. Read about that meeting at Is HEAC Ignoring Rules. We were again present and recorded their discussion; it is in five segments and published on our YouTube channel.
A large focus of HEAC’s meeting was operational issues. They elected a new Chairman and Vice Chairman; Amy Gall and George D’Orazio switched roles. They also reelected Cara Barlow as Secretary. The majority of the council’s discussion was about how to run meetings and comply with RSA 91-A. As an advisory committee, HEAC must comply with the same public access and disclosure laws that other NH public bodies must satisfy. Although the council was created by RSA 193-A:10 in 1990, they are only now determining how to sufficiently give public notice of meetings, what constitutes a quorum, under what conditions must they provide minutes, as well as how to store and publish those minutes. It is rather shocking that the council has been in existence for 27 years and only now addressing these concerns.
The council had considerable debate about what constitutes a quorum and under what conditions must minutes be produced. Ms. Amy Gall (NH Homeschooling Coalition, new Vice Chairman), Mr. George D’Orazio (Catholics United for Home Education, new Chairman), and Ms. Cara Barlow (Unschooling NH, Secretary) said they believe a quorum does not consider vacant positions and must be present for a meeting to take place and minutes produced. Sen. Ruth Ward, a non-voting legislative member, said that even without a quorum the council may meet, but no actions (motions or votes) taken, and minutes must still be published. Rep. Barbara Shaw, another non-voting legislative member, agreed, as did Ms. Janet Ellis (Christian Home Educator). Rep. Shaw also encouraged HEAC to publish minutes even if they do not have a quorum for greater transparency. This point was not finalized, but Sen. Ward indicated she would follow up with the senate’s legal counsel for guidance.
Per most parliamentary procedures including Robert’s Rules of Order Revised, 4th Edition, a quorum is a simple majority of voting members unless otherwise specified in bylaws. It is also considered “best practices” to exclude vacant seats to determine a quorum; refer to Mason’s Manual section 501.1, the procedures that most state legislatures follow. Generally, a quorum counts the actual people in office rather than the total number of offices; it refers to current members, not empty seats.
This is an important point for HEAC to settle because it is not clear whether or not numerous past meetings in fact met the standard requirements of a quorum. Minutes were not published based on their presumption that they are not required if they did not have a quorum. On the HEAC website there are several notations that meetings did not have a quorum so they did not publish minutes even though they discussed business. If this is true, then HEAC has operated in violation of RSA 91-A for years.
At a minimum, minutes must contain a list of members present and any actions (motions and votes). It is HEAC’s long-standing practice to include brief descriptions of the discussion at meetings when they publish minutes. This is an appropriate practice given HEAC’s primary function.
Per Ed 315.08, HEAC’s purpose is to be a communication bridge between and among the homeschool community and representatives of the public education community. They are an advisory board that has no authority to take action directly. Unlike a Zoning Board, for example, that determines and approves use within their purview, HEAC is a body tasked with the responsibility to bring a better understanding of home education, and by extension, clarify misunderstandings. Therefore, their minutes will not reflect many if any actions (motions or votes) and instead the discussions that take place at their meetings. All the more reason why the lack of HEAC minutes is problematic.
Ed 315.08 The Home Education Advisory Council.
(a) The home education advisory council shall carry out those duties assigned to it by the commissioner. The council shall work with home educators and representatives of private and public education to encourage understanding of home education.
(b) Assigned areas of responsibility for the council shall include the following:
(1) Developing and maintaining effective communications between home educators and those public, and nonpublic schools and state and local agencies involved in home education;
(2) Recommending to the commissioner and state board of education desired changes in rules pertaining to home education;
(3) Establishing a grievance committee to hear grievances referred to it by the commissioner; and
(4) Providing an annual report to the state board on its activities.
Towards the end of the meeting (video #4 at 15:50 continuing through video #5), Ms. Janet Ellis, one of the homeschool representatives, inquired about the collection of home ed student reports from Participating Agencies. Ms. Ellis indicated that she had a recent discussion with a representative from a private school that serves as a Participating Agency. This person told Ms. Ellis that the Department of Education is no longer requesting how many homeschoolers notify through them. The form the school received from the DOE changed in 2016 and no longer asks for that data.
Per Ed 315.05, Participating Agencies (the schools to which homeschoolers send in their notification letters) must report how many homeschoolers they have in their records by October 1 of each year. That rule has not changed nor has there been any statutory change since 2012 that would impact the reporting requirement. Ed 315, Procedures for the Operation of Home Education Programs, has the same force of law as statutory requirements on home education programs.
Ed 315.05 Duties of Participating Agencies. Resident district superintendents or nonpublic school principals as participating agencies shall maintain a list of all home education programs for which they have received notification. This list shall contain the name, date of birth and address of each child for whom a home education program is established. On October 1 of each year, the participating agency shall notify the commissioner of the number of children for whom programs were established.
Per Heather Gage of the Department of Education, Participating Agencies are only to report the number of homeschoolers that provided notification that individual year; in the DOE’s reading “shall maintain a list of all home education programs” does not mean a running total.
Further, Ms. Gage said that the requirement for homeschoolers to report when their home ed program ends may not be to the same Participating Agency that they gave their original notification to, thereby confusing the entire record of a child. She said homeschoolers may notify one SAU initially when they begin a home ed program and inform a different one when their program terminates thereby creating poor data quality.
Under current statute, home educating parents are required to provide one-time notification per child to a Participating Agency of their choice – their local SAU office, a private school that offers these services, or the Department of Education — when they begin a home ed program as well as notify when the program ends per RSA 193-A:5.
Further, in Ed 315.04 (m) the rules state that if a home education program ends before the child is 18 years old, the parent must inform the Commissioner of Education as well as the Participating Agency (emphasis ours). It does not state a Participating Agency, reasonably indicating notice must be to the same Participating Agency that family used for their original notification to create their home ed program.
Ed 315.04 Notification. (m) A parent wishing to voluntarily terminate an established home education program shall notify the commissioner and the participating agency in writing within 15 business days of satisfying any one of the alternatives for compulsory attendance listed in RSA 193:1 such as enrollment in a public or non-public school.
Given that the term Participating Agency refers to a specific function performed by a SAU office, private school, or the Department of Education for a homeschooling family, it is reasonable to presume that once a family designates to work with one of those entities, that is the Participating Agency for that family. This is one interpretation, but the Department of Education understands it to mean something else.
Ms. Gage said that since the law changed in 2012 that eliminated the annual notification requirement (via HB 1571), Participating Agencies are unable to accurately determine how many homeschoolers they are tracking. The Department stopped publishing homeschool data a few years ago because they received numerous complaints that it was inaccurate so they have stopped collecting it from Participating Agencies. This would appear to be in violation of Ed 315.05.
If the purpose of HEAC is to bring stakeholders together – representatives of several homeschool organizations and members of various public school associations and the Department of Education – why is this core issue unaddressed?
Per RSA 193-A:3 HEAC is responsible for reviewing and making recommendations when Ed 315 is renewed every 10 years or when legislation requires an update. In fact, Ed 315.05 was reauthorized in March 2014 so it was reviewed rather recently, certainly since the law changed in 2012 that the DOE says is causing reporting and data problems.
HEAC meets at least bi-monthly for the purposes of discussing issues impacting homeschooling. If the Department of Education had any question about how to meet this requirement given the notification law change in 2012, the council had ample opportunity to discuss and work on language to clarify the rule. How is it that such a major difference of understanding could perpetuate for several years and go unaddressed?
It would seem that HEAC is failing to fulfill their primary function as a bridge of communication and understanding for and on behalf of the homeschool community to public school representatives and the NH Department of Education.
If HEAC is not satisfying their central purposes – repeatedly fails to report minutes to the homeschool community, fails to comply with RSA 91-A, and does not resolve critical misunderstandings with the DOE – then it is reasonable to ask what purpose does HEAC serve.
The Home Education Advisory Council will hold their next meeting on November 9th at 3:30pm at the Department of Education offices. The address is 101 Pleasant Street in Concord. The room location changes so inquire at the front desk.