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Education Reporter

Home School Parents Win Major Victory

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BOSTON, MA - The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) of Massachusetts unanimously ruled in December in Michael Brunelle et al. v. Lynn Public Schools that the school district had no right to mandate home inspections of home schooling families. The case brought by home schooling parents Michael and Virginia Brunelle and Stephen and Lois Pustell against the Lynn Public Schools started seven years ago.

The court held that parents have a basic constitutional right to direct the education of their children. "Home education proposals can be made subject only to essential and reasonable requirements," the court ruled. "The home visits sought to be imposed on the education proposals of the plaintiffs are not essential."

The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) filed the suit in 1991 on behalf of the Pustell family, who had refused to allow Lynn school district personnel to inspect their home, as demanded by the school committee. The Brunelles joined the suit in 1994 after criminal charges were brought against them (and later dropped) for refusing the mandated home visits.

HSLDA president and lead attorney in the case, Michael Farris, said he was "overjoyed" with the judges' reasoning. "Not only did the court presume parents would do the right thing for their children," he explained, "but that presumption led to the recognition of parents' constitutional right to educate their children. This is a victory for freedom."

The Lynn School District is the only one in the nation that enforces a policy requiring home visits to observe and evaluate home school programs. Expert testimony in the case demonstrated that standardized achievement test results are the only reliable indicator of the thoroughness and efficiency of a home school program. The judges agreed that standardized tests and other methods can be used to evaluate home-schooled students, but left the door open for home visits in cases of academic failure, or when other parents send their children to a neighbor for schooling.

In 1986, the Rhode Island Commissioner of Education similarly struck down home visits, declaring them unconstitutional. He pointed out that the Fourth Amendment protects individuals from "unwanted and warrantless visits to the home by agents of the state."

Media coverage of the court's decision has been generally positive. An editorial in the Dec. 19 Boston Herald said the ruling "forestalled a dangerous assault on home schooling." It cited the "positive results" of the home school movement, stating: "Standardized tests scores show that, on average, the 1.7 million children schooled at home do better than their public school counterparts."

An Indianapolis Star editorial on Dec. 30 opined: "The idea of a school board demanding that the teaching ability of parents be checked must have struck many Massachusetts residents as ludicrous. Until this past spring, Massachusetts was one of only seven states that do not require teachers to pass a test to qualify for certification." The editorial reminded readers that 59% of aspiring Massachusetts teachers made national headlines last spring when they failed a basic skills test. (See Education Reporter, Sept. 1998.)

The Boston Globe reported on Dec. 17 that the Lynn School District will not appeal the court's decision, and quoted the superintendent as saying the district had already begun to revise its policy prior to the ruling.

Michael Farris is confident that the SJC's decision "probably settles the issue of home visits for the rest of the country," citing the "clear, unanimous verdict of the court" and the fact that it was handed down in "the liberal state of Massachusetts." He believes that other governmental institutions and state school boards will be reluctant to challenge it.

"We don't need to be checking on everybody for everything," Farris said. "Totalitarian governments do that, but it's not easily tolerated in a free country."

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