Educating the School Board

The following letter was sent by a home schooling parent, Fred Joblin, to his local school board.  This letter was one of several communications back and forth that Mr. Joblin had with the superintendent of the Near North Board of Education as well as the school attendance counsellor.

Apparently, the Near North Board of Education decided to take a proactive stance and began contacting home schooling families in an attempt to perform assessments. Mr. Joblin speculated that this was due in part to the fact that some person or persons called the board about seeing children around town during the school day.

The correspondence was in regards to the proposed board guidelines on homeschooling to which Mr. Joblin took issue with several points in the guidelines. He made a presentation to the board on November 23, 1999. He received a letter from the board chair thanking him for his presentation and was assured that he would be informed when the guidelines were revised.

Fred Joblin, and his wife Kathie, are the parents of Ted, a 17 year-old unschooler. Fred is a former elementary school teacher, owner of a learning centre, adult education teacher, and coordinator of the (Parry Sound/Muskoka area) Whitepine Homeschooling Network. Currently, he works as a writer, an editor, and a partner in an energy management company. He is also a partner in the beginnings of an intentional community and spiritual retreat centre.


Don Cowan
Near North Board of Education
Parry Sound, Ontario

November 17, 1999

Dear Don,

Thank you for your letter of November 4, 1999. Having read it, I feel there are two key points that I would like to reiterate to you and other concerned people on the board.

1. The most basic point that I, and many homeschoolers with whom I have spoken (the “"we"” that follows), wish to make is that we simply do not accept any authority from the board. Phone calls and letters and assessments are undesired because we claim the historic right to raise and educate our children as we see fit, without government questioning or interference. We have opted out of the school system and therefore do not feel obligated to the board (beyond letting it know we are homeschooling) or to its beliefs or its methods of instruction and assessment.

2. We recognize the board has the right to request an inquiry by the Provincial Attendance Counsellor, should it have a concern that satisfactory instruction is not being received, but how the board makes such a determination should in no way infringe on the rights of families as provided in the Education Code. I appreciate your letter'’s confirmation that families may decline giving information and receiving an assessment; I trust, then, that sections 1.1, 1.6, 1.8, and Appendices 1, 2, 3, and 5 in the revised guidelines will clearly state so. Letters and communications would be in the form of requests or offers, with no presumption of requirement. Section 4c of the Home Schooling Procedure, indicating an inquiry recommendation for families who “"refuse to cooperate”," would be deleted.

Editor'’s Notes:  Section 1.1 states that "“When a parent/guardian informs a principal that he/she will be providing a homeschooling program or the principal learns that information through other means; the principal will ask the parent/guardian to write a letter to the superintendent of program and schools indicating: name, birth date, sex and grade of each child; address; telephone number; name of school where child is attending or should be attending; reason for providing a homeschooling program and signature of parents."

Section 1.6 states that "“Once the attendance counsellor ascertains that a homeschooling program is being offered, she/he will write a letter to the parent acknowledging that a program is being provided. A copy of the letter will be sent to the principal and superintendent of program and schools. The attendance counsellor will enter the name in the Homeschooling Registry."

Section 1.8 states that “"As soon as the superintendent receives the copy of the letter from the attendance counsellor, he/she shall at least once in each school year make all necessary arrangements for the assessment of the child which may be based on: assessment using standardized test; evaluation of growth of child in Reading, Writing, Arithmetic; examination of written work of child and discussions with child and/or parent."

Appendix 1: Suggested Framework for Homeschooling Letter from Parent (notifying school of intention to homeschool); Appendix 2: Basic Expectations of Parents and Guardians; Appendix 3: Sample Letters from Attendance Counsellor to Parents; Appendix 5: Suggested Framework for Letter to Parents Explaining Purpose of Meeting.

I could end my letter there. If the above points were to be recognized then that might be sufficient communication between us. However, I appreciate your willingness to dialogue, and I feel I can be of some value in sharing the whys and wherefores of the burgeoning home schooling movement. Thus, I will respond to your letter in detail, recognizing there will be some repetition from my last letter, although perhaps with more detail and explanation. I do so not in any personal way concerning teachers or administrators regarding their intentions (after all, I'’m personally answerable to 19 teachers and administrators in 3 generations on both sides of the family!). I do so to communicate a position as clearly as I can, so you can understand our concerns and wishes.

What I (and many others) challenge is an educational system that has an unspoken agenda of "“power and control"” over people'’s lives (control of what is learned, when it is learned, and how it is learned; control of assessment, control of rewards and punishments, control of time, and even control of destiny). Public education is, from an historical perspective, an outgrowth of European colonialism, and its “"we know what’'s best for you"” approach. In time, it will be interesting how history judges this recent (150 year-old) invention, although history has already judged a specific aspect of it: Native residential schools.

My own vision of learning is Aboriginal-based; you can read about the four "“basics"” of Belonging, Independence, Mastery, and Generosity, in the enclosed article, The Circle of Courage. You can also read about a critique of public education by John Taylor Gatto, a former New York City Teacher of the Year, who opted out of the system for reasons similar to mine. These articles may or may not be of interest to you, but I offer them as a way of helping you and any other interested school officials to understand why many homeschoolers feel as strongly as they do, especially about the prospect of being assessed from a “"schooling”" perspective.

I can appreciate the board wanting to know the numbers of people not attending school in your geographical area. I recognize that when more than just a few people make this choice, certain questions may arise, such as why this is happening, the funding effects, and what response will be made. You indicate that the Ministry of Education expects the board to define guidelines for excusing children from compulsory attendance regulations. Is there documentation which states this expectation? The Education Code only has reference to the inquiry process and to “"satisfactory instruction" -- ”—an undefined term that is open to interpretation and therefore something we can agree on or agree to disagree on, but cannot impose on one another.

This is why the guidelines are inappropriate, in my opinion, as they presume an interpretation of satisfactory instruction -- —the board’'s interpretation. I would strongly argue, for example, that the board’'s ideas of comparing a child’'s knowledge and skills "“commensurate with expectations of the child’'s age group"” is a horrible thing to do to children. I believe we should be listening to and learning from them and with them, not expecting them to measure up to our expectations— -- and not even expectations based on their own maturation level or learning styles or areas of interest or expertise, but on comparisons to other children. One of the reasons I quit classroom teaching was because I could no longer, in good conscience, test and grade children according to some outside criteria.

Homeschooling offers the opportunity to support and guide children on their own learning and living journey, on a partnership (let’'s learn together) and mentor (help given when requested) basis. This is one reason why homeschooling works so well for so many people; without the constraints and pressures of comparative expectations, the natural instinct to learn and grow can blossom from within. Many parents experience “"getting their child back"” (meaning the child’'s true, open, loving self) when their children leave school and can learn at their own pace, without the endless comparisons to other children and expectations from authority figures. I think it is quite ironical that the board would attempt to assess satisfactory instruction, when the very reason many people homeschool is because they felt their children received not only unsatisfactory instruction in school, but also inappropriate, disrespectful, boring, disconnected instruction.

You indicate that some homeschoolers had input into the guidelines, as well as the Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents (OFTP), and I'’d like to learn more about what they said and recommended. Are there minutes to meetings that you could pass along? I’'ve shown my last letter to enough other homeschoolers to know that the points of view I expressed are widely held; if the questions and challenges I put forth were appreciated during the process, it'’s hard to see where they showed up.

I appreciate your concern to help even one child who is being neglected. "“Neglected”" is another loaded word, however. If you mean neglected as in a Children’'s Aid case, then, as I’'ve agreed before, this should be reported. However, if you mean neglected, as in unsatisfactory instruction, then we'’re back to where we were before. In any case, the idea of processing every homeschooling family you can find in the hopes of finding the one or two who are abusing their kids is quite unacceptable.

I appreciate that the board has no budget for parents sending in an itemized list of requested materials. It'’s equally understandable, however, that home schooling families would want something out of the education taxes they pay and get nothing for. I’'d be curious what the government does with the funds that come in but are not allocated to a board because students aren'’t registered. We'’re talking big bucks here, if the numbers of homeschoolers are close to what I think they are. How this money could be re-allocated, to actually benefit homeschoolers in some way, would be an interesting question to discuss. In response to specific sections:

-- Guidelines, Section 1.9 ("“Principals are not expected to provide resources or accommodations in a school building to any student being home schooled.”"). Perhaps it could be stated that principals are welcome (as they so choose) to help homeschooling families.

-- Guidelines, Appendix 5 (Assessment process). You indicate that questions beyond the reading, writing, and math areas (venturing into the philosophical and/or spiritual areas) would be inappropriate to ask. These areas are impossible to avoid, however. There is a very definite philosophy behind focusing on an assessment of growth in reading, writing, and math. I happen to believe that this kind of skills growth, while important, is not representative of the “"basics"” at all. For someone to assess my son on this kind of "“skills"” basis (even though he is quite proficient for his needs) would indeed trivialize what has been our focus-which has been on experiential learning, a sense of belonging and purpose and meaning, and discovering and following your dreams.

-- Education Code, Section 28 (1a). You invoke this section to say that principals are obliged to list students not attending school “"in order to ascertain"” whether such students are legally excused from attending. The section actually states that principals have an obligation to list “"all students of compulsory school age who have not attended school as required."” This implies to me an obligation to list non-attending students within the jurisdiction of the board (i.e., registered students), and not those excused in Section 21 (2). I see no legal justification for the guidelines to require principals to make a list of homeschooling students.

You indicate that some parents might appreciate a call from the board (although an interval of one to several years hardly strikes me as more than a passing interest). That’'s fine, and some families may appreciate an assessment (by request). But most families I know are not interested in a call or an assessment; they’'re interested in carrying on with their life and the learning approach they have chosen. In particular, families who have withdrawn their children from school because they felt the instruction there was unsatisfactory are not likely to want a conversation, unless the board wants to hear their concerns and/or complaints.

What I believe needs to be clear to all concerned, as I indicate at the beginning of my letter, is that whatever information the board may seek within its geographical area, homeschoolers have no obligation to assist. There is no legal requirement for homeschoolers to follow board policies or guidelines, as homeschoolers are outside the jurisdiction of a board. Only an inquiry, as described in 2.4 of the Education Code, can challenge non-attendance in school.

If the board chooses not to offer any kind of help, beyond information regarding curriculum sources, or testing, then the most I can see of value would be a simple, mutual, non-assessing conversation, should a family choose such a conversation. You say there would be no intentional attempt to threaten anyone during an interview. I know that. My perception of "“threat"” is in no way a personal statement about the board’'s or the interviewer’'s intention or way of speaking. The threat I perceive is due to the situation or context of the interview: that one person presumes an authority/control role in which a judgement is being passed down (positive or otherwise). An example of what I mean is how a jail guard can show respect and friendliness toward an inmate, but the background situation leaves no doubt about who is in control and who calls the shots.

A more related example is a teacher who can show respect and friendliness, but the point is, that teacher is in a control relationship with the student. All I need to do is imagine a student saying she doesn'’t feel like doing what the teacher says to do that day, or that week, or that month -- —she has her own ideas of how to spend her time— -- to recognize the "“threats"” that would come her way (e.g. talks with the principal, parent conferences, recommendations of testing, concerns over learning disabilities, poor grades and report cards).

Any control relationship carries with it an inherent threat of what will happen if the person in control doesn'’t like what'’s happening. I'’d even go so far as to say that a positive judgement is no less “"threatening”" in that it maintains the unequal relationship, thereby encouraging the interviewee to maintain a subservient position and accept an outside judgement as if it actually means something. I recognize the board’'s intention to maximize a child’'s potential, but I feel this intention is undermined when a relationship of control exists.

In conclusion, I recognize and appreciate your personal open channel and desire to do what'’s best. I recognize that most teachers in schools, and attendance counsellors like Cheryl, do their best, with the best of intentions. As I said, my concerns and questions and challenges are not personal to anyone. I don'’t share these thoughts to be argumentative or unfriendly, but mainly to inform and help you understand why board guidelines and any assessment procedures are likely to be considered inappropriate and unwelcome to many homeschoolers.

Sincerely,

Fred Joblin

cc: trustees, interested others

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