Home schoolers win case in Massachusetts court State officials can't inspect parents' homes

December 17, 1998|By BOSTON GLOBE

BOSTON -- In a major victory for home schoolers that also serves as a warning to school districts statewide, Massachusetts' highest court ruled yesterday that Lynn school officials have no right to visit parents' homes to see how they teach their children.

Capping a seven-year lawsuit over parents' rights to teach children any way they choose, the ruling comes at a critical time for home schoolers: As their numbers have quadrupled in the last decade to an estimated 4,500 statewide, hundreds of families are struggling to understand their rights in vaguely written laws and court rulings.

Lynn will not appeal the decision and the new school superintendent said yesterday the district had already begun to revamp the policy before the Supreme Judicial Court ruled.

"Still, this ruling definitely clears the air for school districts," said Lynn Superintendent James Mazareas, who took office in August. The district originally pursued the case because "six or seven years ago, this was uncharted territory," he said.

The case stretches back to 1991, when Stephen and Lois Pustell filed a suit against the Lynn School Committee because the board required home schoolers to be periodically observed by school officials. In 1994, Michael and Virginia Brunelle faced criminal charges in the same city when they objected to home visits and refused to submit their educational plans to Lynn officials.

While the criminal charges were dropped, the Brunelles, Pustells and their attorneys challenged the validity of Lynn's policy first in the federal courts and then in the state courts during the past three years. Meanwhile, both couples, each with five children, continued teaching their children at home rather than sending them to school.

"We're just thrilled with the decision," said Stephen Pustell, 44, a computer analyst, yesterday. The city's job "is to know that children are being educated, not to educate them."

The court did not rule on the constitutionality of visiting home schoolers and instead relied on a much simpler argument: There is no state law that says school districts can require home visits. The court also re-emphasized parents' long-standing rights to educate their children in the best way they see fit.

"It's a big victory with national significance," said Michael Farris, a lawyer from the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association, who represented the parents. "Home school laws are in constant flux. If this decision would have gone the other way, we think there would have been copycat school districts all over the country."

While Lynn is considered the only school district in the country to have required home visits, some school districts statewide have had the requirement on their books, but did not enforce it. Some districts that did not have the requirement would ask parents for home visits. Many times parents, unsure of their rights, agreed to allow inspectors into their homes.

"This ruling will help clarify things," said Pat Farenga, president of Holt Associates, publisher of a magazine about home schooling. "There are a lot of people who don't want to report they home school because of the vagueness" of regulations.

State law does allow local boards to monitor home schooling. Most school systems require some type of documentation -- portfolios of student work, assurances that students are being taught the full school year, or proof of lesson plans.

Pub Date: 12/17/98

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