The first step in lawmaking is for a member to submit his ideas in writing to the Legislative Reference Bureau, which is the bill drafting agency of the General Assembly, outlining in substance what he desires in the proposed law. The bill is then drafted and typed in proper form. The member signs it, thereby assuming its sponsorship.1
Yet another September crunch phone call, writes my wife Susan. It was the start of another school year and the homeschooling families were being hit harder than ever by their school districts. I listened. This distraught mother talked on and on about her difficult situation with her superintendent -- they held she wasn't qualified, they were talking criminal truancy charges, they were making threats. She was determined to teach her seven-year-old son herself, but there seemed no possible way out of trouble for her. I found myself suddenly saying to her, astonished that my voice was saying the words, that I really felt that legislative change might be the only way out for homeschoolers in Pennsylvania. Maybe it had really come to that, changing the law. I promised this mother that this coming year we would begin seriously looking into making a law change a reality.
I hung up the phone. Had I really just said what I thought I'd said? Did I mean it? And where would we begin if I DID mean it? I certainly knew next to nothing about legislative action. I admit I hardly knew who my legislator was, or even what the first step would be in trying to introduce a bill. I probably didn't know the difference between a bill and a law. I was innocent and green, but there was a problem here and it seemed to only be getting worse. It was time for action, time for finding out what that action could be.
At that time, there were probably only about 500 families homeschooling in Pennsylvania. The compulsory education section of the school code gave several options to parents, such as sending their children to a public or non-public school. The option used by homeschoolers was the "private tutoring" option:
Regular daily instruction in the English language, for the time herein required by a properly qualified private tutor, shall be considered as complying with the provisions of this section if such instruction is satisfactory to the proper district superintendent of schools.
Usually, the first parents who approached their district had the hardest time, as the school superintendents had never heard of homeschooling. Gradually, however, school officials became more cooperative, and future families were approved more quickly. But now, families were going in to see their superintendents and not getting permission; the superintendents were holding that they were not "properly qualified" to be private tutors.
Susan called Peter Bergson, editor of The PENCIL Sharpener, a homeschooling newsletter in Eastern Pennsylvania, who was getting the same sort of phone calls, and they decided that they would, indeed, look into making a change in the law. Susan set up a meeting with our representative, and Peter met with his. Both turned out to be supportive of the idea of homeschooling, and both were members of the House Education Committee. Our representative, Henry Livengood, asked Susan to write up a draft of the sort of bill that we would like to have introduced so we could have something concrete to work from.
One evening when Susan and I were tossing possible legislative ideas around, I offered to take on this responsibility within our family. One of my goals in life was to leave the world a better place than I found it, and I was intrigued at the possibility of trying to get a helpful change made in this law.
My idea of effective political action is building institutions which make the world a better place. I had not always been a builder.
As a high school student I was a complainer. I complained about the government. I complained about my school. In fact, my friends and I used to sit around every lunch time at school complaining about the hot lunches while we ate them! My idea, at that time, was that the world would be a better place if only the people in power had my opinions. I had no idea, then, that the world is formed by builders, not complainers.
When I was in college I was involved while my father organized a cooperative store in Pittsburgh. It was his way to make the world a better place. I helped with the store from the beginning. I heard the complaints about it, and they affronted me. I was trying to make it work. I had become a builder.
My heroes became other builders like my father. I admired Ken and Susan Webb, builders of an extremely beneficial Quaker summer camp where I worked three summers as a counselor. And I still admire my wife, founder of our homeschool and of our homeschooling newsletter.
The more I became involved with homeschooling, the more I could see it as a good institution. How much better for parents to start teaching their own children than to just sit around complaining about how bad the schools are!
Now I was ready to do my bit for the builders of homeschools. The first thing I did was research homeschooling laws by looking in back issues of Growing Without Schooling, the homeschooling magazine put out by the late educator John Holt (author of Teach Your Own, How Children Learn and How Children Fail). I found the text of several bills that had been passed in other states, and I found John Holt's suggestion for the model law. I also learned that I could find homeschooling laws printed in the state codes at the University of Pittsburgh's law library. I put together aspects of John Holt's model law, the Virginia law, the Wisconsin law, and the Mississippi law, and came up with a draft which would still require that homeschooling families go to their superintendents for permission to teach their own children, but would give parents the right to appeal should the superintendent decline to give permission. Also, I made no mention of parental qualifications and specified that homeschools would be allowed to use school textbooks, facilities, and curricular materials. Evaluation of programs at the end of the year would be through either achievement tests or a portfolio of the children's work at the parent's choice.
About a week later, Peter Bergson came to Western Pennsylvania to visit our mutual homeschooling friends Tom and Madalene Murphy. Tom and Madalene, both former college English professors, helped fine-tune the language, and together we finished what we called a "Preliminary Draft of Proposed In-Home Instruction Legislation."
Madalene was inspired by Peter and Susan's accounts of their visits to their legislators, and decided to visit hers. Visits to legislators were a brand new idea to homeschoolers at that time, and those who went on these visits were often the first homeschoolers their legislators had encountered.
Madalene found Senator Early at his Friday evening open house at Northway Mall. Since malls are not conducive to lengthy meetings, she didn't bring curricular materials to show him. She just brought with her a copy of our proposed legislation. Sen. Early had never heard of homeschooling before and his immediate reaction was, "Well, if all homeschoolers are like you, I'd have no trouble with the idea, but there are a lot of kooks out there, you know." Madalene tried to explain that most homeschoolers are not kooks and that there was a great deal of inconsistency in the way homeschoolers throughout the state were being treated, but Sen. Early was not impressed.
Susan was soon ready to meet a second time with Representative Livengood. Besides submitting our draft proposal, she arranged for our son Jesse, then 7, to interview Rep. Livengood about his work as a legislator. At home Jesse had made up a list of questions to ask, and had them typed up and ready. "Was your family always interested in politics? Did you support the bill to make the firefly the state bug? How do you travel back and forth to Harrisburg?" and so on. Jesse brought a tape recorder with him to record our representative's answers. Susan stayed in the waiting room while Jesse conducted the interview. Rep. Livengood was charmed. Throughout the legislative effort, we could always count upon him for support.
As with many ideas whose time has somehow come, unsuspected simultaneous effort was going on in other parts of the state. We soon heard that Ann Cameron-Schick, a homeschooling leader from the Pocono Area, was calling a state-wide meeting of support group leaders to discuss possible legislative action. Ann would soon drop out of the legislative effort, but she did an invaluable service by bringing us all together at the beginning.
Susan would have liked to attend, but she didn't see how we could pack up the whole family, including young Molly, for the seven-hour drive each way just to attend the meeting, so I drove without my family to Quakertown. Sue Laurito, a homeschooling leader who had been prosecuted by the Philadelphia School District, was there watching for someone. "Tom Eldredge should be here soon," she said. "He said he was coming." I had never met, or heard of Tom Eldredge, but I knew that to Sue Laurito, at least, he must be a very important leader. While we were waiting for Tom, Sue told Paul Landis, Bob Anderson, Ann Cameron-Schick, and myself about her court case.
In November, the Lauritos were taken to court after informing the Philadelphia School District that their children were being taught at home through the correspondence program of the Hewitt-Moore Child Development Center. The magistrate instructed the Lauritos to reapply to the school district using the school district's forms.
In February, the school district rejected the Lauritos' application saying that Sue had not sent a copy of her degree. They contended that the Lauritos were not "properly qualified" private tutors under the Pennsylvania law. The Lauritos argued that they were working with Dr. Raymond Moore, and that their children were receiving additional instruction from an art teacher and a piano teacher. They also said that an educational psychologist was proctoring their children's basic skills tests and that their children were scoring above grade level.
Nevertheless, the school district again took the Lauritos to court. The magistrate, who usually tried cut-and-dried truancy cases, immediately noticed the difference. "Can't you see," he asked the school district's lawyers, "that these people are teaching their children? Can't you see that there are educators involved?" He postponed the case until April 19 so that the school district could receive copies of Dr. Moore's degree and a copy of the educational psychologist proctor's degree.
The day before the case was to resume, the school district accepted the Lauritos' application to teach their own children, but they would not accept Sue as a private tutor because she wasn't properly qualified. Also, they wouldn't accept Dr. Moore as the private tutor because he lived out of state. Instead they held that the educational psychologist who proctored the Laurito children's tests was the properly qualified tutor and they gave this psychologist the responsibility, not to teach, but to see that the curriculum and the hours of instruction were carried out. The school district offered to withdraw the charges, but the Lauritos, on the advice of their lawyer, rejected this offer, and the next day the judge dismissed the case with prejudice -- meaning that so long as the facts remained the same, the school district could not again prosecute the Lauritos for truancy.
Just as Sue finished her story, Tom Eldredge arrived and we got down to business. We had much to decide. Were we going to back the legislative proposal that I had already given to Rep. Livengood, or were we going to try to abolish the compulsory school law altogether?
"If we try to abolish the compulsory school law," I argued, "we'll never get anywhere. It would take decades at least. What we need to do is put a provision in the law that will allow people to homeschool."
"But," someone argued, "the compulsory school law is by its very nature an unconstitutional infringement on freedom."
Tom supported my position. "The way you change things is gradually," he said. "In America today, we have allowed school superintendents to make our decisions for so long that we can't simply walk up to them and say, "Hey, this is my responsibility -- you don't have any right to say yes or no!"
"Once homeschooling is legal," I put in, "people will begin to see that parents can be trusted to control their children's education."
We closed the meeting by agreeing to form a loose state-wide organization of support groups so that we could all work together to get a good homeschooling law passed in Pennsylvania. It would be called Parent Educators of Pennsylvania, and it would disband as soon as the legislative effort was over.
Before we left the meeting, Tom and I had a long talk in the parking lot. Interestingly, the talk was not about politics, but about the Old Testament. Here we were, two people from very diverse backgrounds who were forging the beginnings of a successful partnership. Tom was a high school graduate, a businessman, and a fundamentalist Christian. I was finishing up a doctorate degree in education, was a school teacher, and Jewish. Our meeting point was the Old Testament. I remember we discussed our interpretations of the Cain and Abel story. To me it meant that people have a choice in their own lives between good and evil, and that they can choose good. Tom agreed on the importance of people's choices between good and evil. We understood that we were both working to give people the choice to choose homeschooling, something that we both had found to be extremely good.
Over the coming years, Tom and I would work very closely together. We became the two primary leaders of the legislative effort. The unity that Parent Educators of Pennsylvania achieved as an organization came from the unity that Tom and I achieved in working together. We always consulted each other when we made decisions. (Our astronomical phone bills are evidence of that!) When important decisions needed to be made, we both consulted with other leaders across the state. Those leaders who didn't trust Tom, trusted me, and those who didn't trust me, trusted him, and Tom and I trusted each other.
Soon after the meeting Tom Eldredge phoned his own representative, Joseph Pitts, and they arranged for a group of homeschoolers (Tom Eldredge, Sue and Len Laurito, and Bob Anderson) to meet with a group of representatives who strongly supported freedom to practice one's own religion (Joseph Pitts, Jerry Birmelin, and Paul Clymer).
At the beginning of the meeting, Tom and Sue explained why we needed a new law. Sue told about her own prosecution by the City of Philadelphia. The representatives said that they were already convinced about the necessity of a new law because they had been contacted by homeschoolers in their own districts. Then they talked about the problems that they had with my preliminary draft.
Rep. Birmelin explained, "There won't be much chance of getting anything this complicated through the House of Representatives this session. There are too many new concepts here, like the provision that homeschoolers can use public school facilities. It would be a lot easier to pass something like House Bill 877." (House Bill 877, known as the "Christian Schools Bill," had passed the House 172-24 and the Senate 39-9 the previous session, but had then died because the versions in the two chambers were slightly different and the session ended before the differences could be reconciled.)
Rep. Pitts then asked, "Why do you want to keep dealing with the local school superintendents?"
"We don't," Tom replied.
Rep. Pitts suggested, "Why don't you rewrite your bill so that it's modeled after the Christian School Bill. Then when the Christian School Bill passes we can say, `Let's give the homeschoolers what we've given the Christian Schools.' I'd be willing to be your sponsor, Tom. Just get back to me as soon as you can with your draft."
That next week, Tom Eldredge redrafted our bill using the language in the Christian Schools bill as a model. He called me to read what he had come up with. I approved, thinking that the representatives would be more enthusiastic about a bill that they had had a hand in writing. Besides, I realized that with all of the difficulties that homeschoolers were having with their school districts, most homeschoolers would be thrilled at the prospect of not having to continue to deal with their school superintendents.
Basically, the bill Tom wrote up simply required parents who wanted to teach their own children to send a notarized affidavit to the Department of Education -- no approval of curriculum, no evaluation components, no minimum qualifications. We would call this our "pie in the sky" version of the bill. It was a good place to start considering the amount of negotiating and compromising that lay ahead. Tom gave a copy to Rep. Pitts, and Rep. Pitts gave it to Greg White, the Republican staff person on the House Education Committee. Greg wrote it up in proper legalese and sent it to the Legislative Reference Bureau to be typed up as a bill.
Dr. Raymond Moore, the strongest Christian advocate of homeschooling, was scheduled to come to Philadelphia for a seminar the coming May. Rep. Pitts suggested to Tom that we try to get him to come to Harrisburg and speak at a legislative breakfast.
Tom successfully organized the breakfast. He sent individual invitations to all of the legislators and arranged for a catered breakfast at the Harrisburg Holiday Inn on May 29. Meanwhile, Susan and I did our best to publicize the breakfast at our end of the state. We tried to get all of the homeschoolers we knew to invite their own representatives to the breakfast personally. Rep. Pitts told us that legislators usually do not attend unless invited by their own constituents, while they generally attend if they know that their constituents will be there.
Diana Moskal, a homeschooling mother, called her representative to invite him to attend the breakfast. Although Diana herself wasn't able to attend, Rep. DeLuca accepted her invitation. Then he told her bluntly what he thought about homeschooling and our bill. "I don't know anything about homeschooling," he said, "and I'm not on the education committee, but I can tell you right now that the legislation you are proposing will never pass."
When she called him again after the breakfast he said, "The breakfast went very well. I won't have any problem voting for the bill the way it reads now. I'll call you if I hear any news about it!"
As the breakfast was being served to about fifty curious legislators and many homeschooling families, Dr. Moore gave his speech. I was amazed that he could talk above the cacophony of clanking glasses and the click of forks against plates. He talked of the new law in the state of Washington which was similar to the legislation we were proposing, except, as he noted, it had evaluation measures which our bill would also have to have for it to pass. He told of his studies of children's development which found that children learn best if formal education is delayed, and he told of the importance of strong families.
"The child who feels needed, wanted, and depended on at home, sharing responsibilities and chores, is much more likely to develop a sense of self-worth and a stable value system -- which is the basic ingredient to positive sociability," he argued. "In contrast is the negative sociability that develops when a child surrenders to his peers."
After the breakfast and Dr. Moore's speech, many of the legislators stayed around for a while to talk with their constituents. Ann Cameron-Schick sat at a table near the podium talking earnestly to Education Committee member, Rep. Battisto. The idea of home education was a novel and intriguing idea to many of the representatives.
After the legislators left, we asked the homeschoolers to stay for a meeting of Parent Educators of Pennsylvania. The consensus of the families present was that we would permit evaluation measures so long as parents had a mixed bag of alternatives. We did not want to be trapped into letting achievement test scores decide whether homeschooling was effective.
About a month later House Bill 1478, our first official bill, was introduced by Rep. Pitts and co-sponsored by twenty-four other legislators. It was then referred to the House Education Committee. We were optimistic that it would soon pass, perhaps before the next school year started in September 1985. How little we knew about the battles that lay ahead!
1Quotes at the beginning of chapters are from "The Biography of a Bill in the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," a pamphlet prepared for distribution by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
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