Posts Tagged ‘massachusetts’

Massachusetts Homeschooling Law

I have been homeschooling in the state of Massachusetts for 15 years or so. The regulations in MA are set by case law and as such tend to have gaps and/or to be open to some interpretation. I encourage all homeschoolers to read the relevant cases for themselves. Most can be found on the Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts (AHEM) website.

I recently took the time to re-read through the cases that constitute our homeschooling laws. With so many new homeschoolers this year (2020), I find there is a lot of information and misinformation circulating. While you should (again) read the laws for yourself, below is my summary of what they say, with particular emphasis on some questions which arise frequently. The most updated version of this document can be found here (opens a Google doc). None of this should be taken as legal advice; these are just my interpretations.


Interpreting the Massachusetts Homeschool Laws

Disclaimer: Everything below is my personal understanding of the law. None of this should be taken as legal advice. 

Homeschooling in Massachusetts is governed by case law as handed down in 3 decisions known as: Charles, Brunelle, and Ivan. There are also a few other decisions and statutes which affect homeschooling including Chapter 76 of the MA General Laws, the Searles decision (1990; summarized here) and the Goodall decision (2019). 

See AHEM (ahem.info) for the text of the decisions and lots of other helpful and advice and info (including sample ed plans). MHLA (mhla.org) is also a wonderful resource. 

Do I have to educate for a certain number of days and/or hours?

No. The hourly requirements of the public schools are never mentioned in the case law. Regarding the days, Charles says: “Furthermore, G. L. c. 71, §§ I and 4, and 603 Code Mass. Regs. § 27.01 (1980) require cities and towns to operate the public schools for a minimum of 180 days. The superintendent or school committee may properly consider the length of the proposed home school year and the hours of instruction in each subject.” That is a little confusing but the law also says multiple times that homeschools are to be approved like private schools [1] and private schools do not have to do the 180 days [2] so my interpretation of what they are saying is “public schools have to do 180 days and homeschoolers can be asked about their days/hours.” 

[1] Charles equates approval of a home education plane with approval of a private school: “A school committee’s process of approval under G. L. c. 76, § 1, of a plan under which parents proposed to instruct their children at home in fulfilment of school attendance requirements was to be governed by the same body of substantive law as is the approval of private schools.”

[2] “The Student Learning Time regulations, as such, do not apply to private schools.” — from the MA DOE website (http://www.doe.mass.edu/lawsregs/advisory/100207privateschool.html; scroll down to FAQ #5)

Do I need to be “approved”?

Yes. Some argue that we are merely submitting a plan and that we are not asking for approval but Charles repeatedly uses the word “approval”: “Thus, the school committee may enforce, through the approval process under G. L. c. 76, § 1, certain reasonable educational requirements similar to those required for public and private schools.” Ivan also speaks of “the approval process.”

Can I withdraw before getting approval?

The short answer is no. Charles says: “Thus, as the statute indicates, approval must be obtained in advance, i.e., prior to the removal of the children from the public school and to the commencement of the home schooling program.” In the recent case of Goodall vs. Worcester, the court added that “Charles contemplates that a child cannot be withdrawn from school until after the school committee and/or superintendent has had an opportunity to review a proposed homeschooling plan and either approved or rejected it —a student may not be withdrawn from school upon the initial filing of a plan.” However in Searles it was ruled that a child did not have to be enrolled in the school while awaiting approval. There seem then to be two distinct cases: that of a child who is enrolled and is being withdrawn midyear and that of a child who has never been enrolled in the local school district or whose ed plan is submitted between school years so that he is not currently enrolled. In the latter case, the child does not need to be enrolled and/or to enter school while awaiting approval. In the former case, that of withdrawing an enrolled child midyear, the parent must wait until approval is obtained. 

In practice many people do withdraw and/or begin homeschooling before getting approval (and many towns never give official approval letters) with no further issues. 

At what age/grade do I need to report?

Each child must attend school beginning in September of the calendar year in which he or she attains the age of six.” (from http://www.doe.mass.edu/lawsregs/603cmr8.html?section=02

Compulsory attendance laws go not from grade but age. If you have a child who has a birthday between September and December, you will be reporting in what would be their kindergarten year.  

What can the school committee consider? What should be in my ed plan?

The advice usually given is to include:

  1. Subjects to be covered
  2. Materials to be used
  3. Parents’ qualifications
  4. Method of evaluation

Brunelle states: “We indicated [in Charles] that school officials could, among other matters, insist that required courses, as enumerated in G. L. c. 71, § 1. [see “what subjects need to be taught?” below]  be taught, as well as any other subjects considered expedient; examine the competency of the teachers (usually parents); consider the length of the school year and the hours of instruction in each subject; insist that parents furnish school officials with access to textbooks, workbooks, and other instructional aids, as well as to lesson plans and teaching manuals, and employ periodic standardized testing or other means of evaluating the children’s progress. ”

This is what Charles says may be considered (citations below). 

  1. The curriculum [3]
  2. The hours of instruction [3] (but see “Do I have to educate for a certain number of days and/or hours?” above) 
  3. The parents’ qualifications [4]
  4. Materials to be used [5]

[3] Charles says: “Although we decline to address the specifics of each requirement, we recognize that certain factors may be considered by the superintendent or school committee in determining whether or not to approve a home school proposal. Primary among these is the proposed curriculum and the number of hours of instruction in each of the proposed subjects.” 

[4] Charles: “The superintendent or school committee may also examine the competency of the parents to teach the children”

[5] Charles: “The superintendent or school committee must also have access to the textbooks, workbooks, and other instructional aids to be used by the children and to the lesson plans and teaching manuals to be used by the parents. This access is necessary only to determine the type of subjects to be taught and the grade level of the instruction for comparison purposes with the curriculum of the public schools.”

What subjects need to be taught?

Charles, quoting the General Laws of MA (ch. 71, sec. 1) lists: “orthography, reading, writing, the English language and grammar, geography, arithmetic, drawing, music, the history and constitution of the United States, the duties of citizenship, health education, physical education and good behavior” and adds: “Under § 1, the school committee may also require other subjects considered ‘expedient.’” Note that you do not need to be teaching all of these subjects every year; this list covers the child’s whole school career. 

Do I need a degree? Can they ask about my education?

No and yes. There are no specific qualifications to home educate beyond being competent and moral, but note that they are allowed to ask about qualifications, including academic credentials. Charles says: “General Laws c. 71, § 1, provides that teachers shall be “of competent ability and good morals.” While we recognize that teachers in public schools must be certified, certification would not appropriately be required for parents under a home school proposal . . . Nor must the parents have college or advanced academic degrees. However, the superintendent or school committee may properly inquire as to the academic credentials or other qualifications of the parent or parents who will be instructing the children.”

What methods of evaluation are acceptable?

Charles lists standardized testing, periodic progress reports, and dated work samples. In theory if you agreed with your town you could use other methods as well. 

Can the school require standardized testing?

This is a bit vague. Charles says: “Finally, the superintendent or school committee may properly require periodic standardized testing of the children to ensure educational progress and the attainment of minimum standards . . .  In consultation with the parents, the school authorities may decide where the testing is to occur and the type of testing instrument to be used . . . Other means of evaluating the progress of the children may be substituted for the formal testing process, such as periodic progress reports or dated work samples, subject to the approval of the parents.” AHEM’s understanding of this is that, because if the specifics of the case, the law is not allowing schools to require standardized testing (https://www.ahem.info/faq.html#test). Ivan, which came out of a case in which parents refused any means of evaluation, says: “The Charles court also suggested that school authorities may jettison standardized testing for less orthodox means of evaluating the progress of the children, “such as periodic progress reports or dated work samples, subject to the approval of the parents.”Id. at 340. In the present case, it was always open to the parents to work out an accommodation of their interests along the lines suggested by school authorities and to resolve the matter by agreement.” In Ivan the parents were encouraged to work with the district (and were given 2 years to do so). The implication is that the two should come to an agreement and that other means of evaluation would have been acceptable. 

Can my ed plan be denied?

The short answer is no. The law outlines a process so a district cannot just deny with no follow-up. Charles outlines this process: “ If the home school proposal is rejected, the superintendent or the school committee must detail the reasons for the decision. The parents must then be given an opportunity to revise their proposal to remedy its inadequacies. However, if the parents commence the education of their children at home in the face of the school committee’s refusal to approve the parents’ home school proposal, the burden of proof under G. L. c. 119 or G. L. c. 76, § 2, shifts to the school committee.” In Ivan we see the process at work; the parents had been resisting the district for two years before the case came to court.  

Can the district ask to see my homeschool environment or evaluate my children in person?

No. This is very clear and is the subject of the Brunelle case which says: “ . . .a home visit is not presumptively essential to protection of the State’s interest in seeing that children receive an education, and therefore, such visits may not be required as a condition to approval of the plaintiffs’ plans.” But there may be some circumstances in  which the state allows home visits such as when other children (from other families) are being taught: “We express no opinion on whether home visits can be required (as appears to be the case in New York during any period of probation) if a child is not making satisfactory progress under a home education plan, if a home is used to educate children from other families, or if other circumstances make such a requirement essential, and reasonable standards are formulated to enforce the requirement.”

Do I have to provide a schedule?

No. This is implied (but not stated outright) in Brunelle which says: “While following a schedule may be an important consideration in a public school where preexisting schedules need to be maintained and coordinated, the perception and use of time in a home school are different. The plaintiffs can observe and accommodate variations (from child to child, subject to subject, day to day) in the learning process and teach through a process that paces each student. The results of their teaching programs can be adequately verified through testing without the need to visit the home to see if a formal schedule is being followed.” However, note that the district is allowed to ask about “ the length of the proposed home school year and the hours of instruction in each subject” (Charles; see above). 

Should I list specific curricula/resources or give a general list of materials?

There is no clear answer here. The answer seems to be that while you do not need to use curricula as such (see “do I have to use a curriculum?” below), the school committee can for specifics re materials. The school committee is allowed to ask about materials and even to examine them (Charles), however Brunelle makes clear that not all materials used will be textbooks and the like (again see below). Charles says: “The superintendent or school committee must also have access to the textbooks, workbooks, and other instructional aids to be used by the children and to the lesson plans and teaching manuals to be used by the parents. This access is necessary only to determine the type of subjects to be taught and the grade level of the instruction for comparison purposes with the curriculum of the public schools.”

Can they tell me how to educate?

No. Charles says: “Consequently, we agree with the parents that the State interest in this regard lies in ensuring that the children residing within the State receive an education, not that the educational process be dictated in its minutest detail.”

Do I have to use a curriculum?

No. Brunelle says: “The plaintiffs can be asked to identify the teaching materials that will be used, and even to show them, if appropriate, to school officials. It should not be overlooked in this regard, that some of the most effective curricular materials that the plaintiffs may use may not be tangible. For example, travel, community service, visits to educationally enriching facilities and places, and meeting with various resource people, can provide important learning experiences apart from the four corners of a text or workbook.”

Is Unschooling legal?

Yes. In Ivan it says:  “The parents’ principal contention is that the committee’s process of approval of their home schooling activity runs counter to their learner led approach to education, which they claim permits them to facilitate the child’s exploration of his or her own interests . . . At the same time, the judge found that the committee had no objection to the [p]arents using this method of education, only that they had to provide the school committee with a home schooling plan that was sufficiently detailed to allow the committee to assess the children’s educational level and their progress on the parents’ home schooling program.”

Can I use a religious curriculum?

Yes. Charles says: “Furthermore, G. L. c. 76, § 1 (1984 ed.), specifically provides that: For the purposes of this section, school committees shall approve a private school when satisfied that the instruction in all the studies required by law equals in thoroughness and efficiency, and in the progress made therein, that in the public schools in the same town; but shall not withhold such approval on account of religious teaching….

Our reading of this statute indicates that the Legislature intended that the approval of a home school proposal fall within the above enunciated standard for the approval of a private school.” Ivan also acknowledges different religious and philosophical reasons for homeschooling: “When parents remove their children from the public school system and decide to educate them in a setting which comports with the parents’ philosophical, moral, or religious convictions . . . “

Can I teach my kids in another language?

Yes. This is a federal law that is cited in Ivan: “See Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923) (States may not forbid foreign language instruction of school children)”

Why do I have to report at all?

The state has an interest in seeing all children educated. Charles: “Although acknowledging that the parents of school-age children possess a basic constitutional right in directing their children’s education, this court concluded that, with respect to parents who wished to instruct their children at home, the school committee of the town in which they resided could properly protect the State’s legitimate educational interests by enforcing, through the approval process under G. L. c. 76, § 1, certain reasonable educational requirements similar to those applied to public and private schools.” And: “While the parents contend, and we agree, that they possess a basic right in directing the education of their children, such a right is not absolute but must be reconciled with the substantial State interest in the education of its citizenry.”

Who is in charge of approving my ed plan?

The school committee of your town, however they may designate this task to someone else. Charles: “ . . .we conclude that the school committee of Canton [the town the case was in] was a proper party in this case.”

Do I need to fill out my town’s form? Should I fill it out?

More and more towns seem to be developing and using their own forms. I will say up front that I am outside the mainstream in my opinion on this issue but here it is:

The use of forms is a grey area because they are not mentioned in the case law (just like anything else that is not mentioned). The law says that districts can only require “essential” things and forms are not truly essential (as evidenced by the fact that some towns don’t use them) but it is not clear how a judge would view this issue. Forms are inherently different from issues like asking for a daily schedule.  A schedule is about content but a form is about format. Often these forms are a housekeeping measure for the schools (they love their forms and paperwork).We make a category error when we lump forms together with other overreach issues.