In the spring during the Legislative Session, Brenda Dickinson, President of the Home Education Foundation (HEF), received several calls from leaders and parents in Alachua County asking if they were required to provide a birth certificate, proof of guardianship or proof of residency. She told them that the law did not require them to provide the additional information. However, she was too busy during Session to investigate the impetus for these demands. On July 7, 2015, she began digging into what was driving these new requirements. Usually when something like this occurs, it is the result of a new person in the district having been assigned the responsibilities of home education. But, this is not what happened in Alachua County. Something else was driving these new regulations. It was a proposed amendment to a bad district policy, along with a new Superintendent and relatively new school board attorney.
After getting a copy of the draft amendment which had been workshopped by the school board on June 1, 2015, Brenda could see that the amendment to the school board policy had come from the Miami-Dade County School Board policy. She then realized that these policies were not being created at the district level. She contacted the Executive Director of the Florida School Board Association to inquire about the organization that writes policies for school districts. Brenda had met with one such organization in the late 1990s to educate them on the home education laws when bad policies began to emerge. So, she thought that maybe it was time to re-educate those people. But she discovered that a new organization, NEOLA, had begun writing school board templates and, worst of all, this organization is based in Ohio, not Florida.
Brenda also found out that the proposed changes to the home education policies were going to come before the Alachua County School Board for a public hearing on July 21. So, she contacted one of the home education leaders in Alachua County, Julie Stewart, and asked her to reach out to other home education leaders and let them know that HEF would be sending out an alert.
In the meantime, Brenda went through the proposed policy line by line and made comments about how the draft violated Florida law. Brenda then contacted the Vice-Chair of the Alachua School Board, Mrs. April Griffin, and asked her to see if the policy could be withdrawn prior to the public hearing. Mrs. Griffin asked Brenda to send her written comments so she could talk with the school board attorney. Brenda sent her the detailed analysis of the proposed policy and waited for Mrs. Griffin’s call. Late on Tuesday afternoon, July 14, Mrs. Griffin told Brenda that she had sent the analysis to the school board attorney and forwarded it to the other school board members. Mrs. Griffin suggested that home educators submit written comments to the board or appear at the school board public hearing on July 21 and voice their concerns.
Brenda immediately sent an alert with a plan of action and her analysis of the proposed amendment to the school board policy to Julie Stewart who forwarded it on to the other home educators in Alachua County on the morning of July 15. On July 16, Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) sent out an alert to their members in Alachua County. Both HSLDA and HEF asked home educators to show up and speak in opposition to the proposed policy amendments and respectfully ask the Board to vote against the amendments and to set up a Task Force to write a new policy.
This is the way that our form of our government should work. On July 21, over 100 home educators showed up to speak in opposition to the proposed amendment. They were respectful and articulate. They spoke with emotion of their right and privilege to home educate in the same way they spoke of their love for their children and the desire to see their children succeed. A few of those home school parents who spoke were attorneys or certified teachers. TJ Schmidt, from HSLDA, clarified the federal issues which were misunderstood by the school board attorney and Brenda addressed the Florida Statutes. Suzanne Nunn, the Florida Parent Educators Association (FPEA) Board Chair, spoke in opposition to the proposed amendment on behalf of all the FPEA members in Alachua County.
The School Board members, the Superintendent and the school board attorney gave their undivided attention and listened respectfully to every parent who signed up to speak. At the end of the public testimony, the Superintendent pulled the policy from further consideration. He said he was going to set up a Task Force to work together to write a new policy and told the group that Alachua County did not want to be in violation of Florida law. He also said that he and his wife had home schooled their children for a couple of years. The members of the Task Force will be announced at the next School Board meeting on August 4.
In the 31 years that Brenda has been lobbying for the rights of parents to home educate their children in Florida, she has found that most of the threats to our rights has been a result of a lack of information on the part of policy makers. Parents are generally the first to learn of new regulations imposed by the district, and we need to figure out why. In the past FPEA has worked to educate the home education district liaison about the Florida home education law. If that did not bring about the desired change, FPEA would contact Brenda Dickinson, and HEF would work with the next level of authority in the district or state to educate those officials. HEF believes in the principle of appeal, working from the bottom up. But since HEF has no staff, Brenda cannot reach 67 counties as well as protecting your rights in the Florida Capitol. HSLDA works with the federal government agencies and Congress to protect parental and home education rights at the national level. So, which organization do you need? You need them all because they work to protect your rights at different levels. FPEA and HSLDA are member organizations, and they represent their members in a variety of ways. HEF is a lobbying organization and has no membership fees to support the work in the Florida Capitol. HEF is supported solely by your donations.
What is the next step? HEF will continue to work with the Alachua County School Board, NEOLA and, in the near future, Miami-Dade School Board to ensure that we get the best possible home education policies, stopping the further spread of encroachments on our rights in Florida. Please forward this email to your home education friends. Ask them to subscribe to the HEF Newsletter at www.flhef.org
Wherever there may be unfriendly home education policies, HEF will need the help of home educators who live in those districts to repeal those policies. You might want to check out your district’s home education policy, and let HEF know if we need to address your school board and superintendent.
Hopefully, the Task Force in Alachua County will develop a model policy that NEOLA will use as their template in Florida and other school boards will amend any unfriendly policies that were adopted from NEOLA.