- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2001

Two seasons make the legal staff at the Home School Legal Defense Association shudder. Every home-schooler knows about the one starting near Labor Day, when summer vacation ends for truant officers across country and they start knocking on doors. The "contact calls" pour in from mid-August to early October, stretching HSLDAs lawyers and legal assistants to the limit every year.
Many home-schoolers never notice the second "busy season" for the legal staff. That season begins in January, when most state legislatures go to work. Mark Twain once said, "No mans life, liberty or property is safe when the legislature is in session," and few people have more reason to agree than the home-schoolers of America.
That is why each January is such a challenge for the lawyers and legal assistants at HSLDA. We comb through hundreds of pieces of proposed legislation, looking for changes that would hurt or help our families. Each dangerous bill presents its own challenges, and even a good bill can turn bad in a single afternoon. Time truly is of the essence when the legislature is in session.
In most states, a teachers union depends on highly paid, highly trained lobbyists who prowl the state capitols clutching their cell phones. Home-schoolers, by contrast, are a far-flung network of parents with full-time jobs and children to teach. Invariably, HSLDA and the home-school community depend on electronic communication.
Old-fashioned letters are hopelessly slow during a legislative emergency. When we faced legislative crises in the past even as recently as six or seven years ago it took us several days just to print and stuff into envelopes tens of thousands of letters to our members, and then it took several more days for those letters to reach their destinations. Now we can send e-mail to every online member in an affected state in a matter of hours.
With an "e-lert," families still can print the information and pass it out by hand, but they also can bounce out electronic information to everyone on their e-mail lists in a matter of seconds.
Children play a game called Telephone, in which one player whispers a message to another, and it is passed down a line of players. It is funny to see how the message has been twisted after it has passed through several children at a birthday party. That sort of game is not funny, however, when freedom is on the line. The Internet makes it possible to put accurate information in one immediately accessible location and then change that information minute by minute as the situation changes.
Mississippi is considered a "safe" state for home-schoolers, but their freedom was suddenly at risk when state legislators introduced four bills specifically designed to regulate home-schooling and another that would raise the compulsory attendance age to 18. HSLDA notified home-schoolers in Mississippi of the bills. Hundreds of e-mails flashed across the Internet to member families, who immediately began to call and write their legislators to oppose this assault on educational freedom in Mississippi.
What happened to the bills? Alert, informed home-schoolers contacted their legislators and shut the bills down. That process has been repeated time after time throughout this legislative season, from Alabama to Alaska to Maine.
As another example, HSLDA supports school choice with no strings attached. Virginia had an opportunity to embrace the same kind of school choice this past legislative session but voted it down.
In January, Delegate Jay Katzen submitted a bill for a scholarship tax credit. This measure would have allowed each Virginia taxpayer to claim a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations of up to $500 to private organizations that grant scholarships for kindergarten through grade 12. Under the terms of the bill, a child could receive a scholarship of up to $3,500 to attend a private school or $550 if the child was educated at home.
HSLDA sent out one e-lert after another to our Virginia members to help them understand the bill and explain what they could do if they supported it. On Jan. 22, the bill squeaked through the House Finance Committee by a single vote. Phone calls and e-mails poured into the legislature as families across Virginia urged their delegates to vote for H.B. 1961 when it reached the floor Jan. 26.
When the bill came to the floor, one delegate offered a "poison pill" amendment that would have forced each scholarship recipient to take the tests required of Virginia public school students. This measure would have forced private and home schools to teach public school curriculum in order for their students to pass Virginias public school test and qualify for the scholarships. The amendment passed by a vote of 54-43.
Then the true power of the Internet showed itself. In the old days, families would have continued to call and write, urging their delegates to vote for H.B. 1961. With the e-lert system, the entire Virginia home-school community was able to switch from enthusiastic support to uncompromising opposition to the bill.
On Jan. 31, the bills sponsor withdrew it rather than endanger the freedom of the states private and home schools. HSLDA e-mailed a list of the delegates who voted against school choice to our Virginia members to give them an opportunity to help their elected representatives understand why school choice is right for Virginia.
Seventy thousand families in 50 states have joined HSLDA to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to preserve the right to do what is best for our own children in our own homes.
Scott Somerville is an attorney for the Home School Legal Defense Association. He and his wife, Marcia, have graduated their two oldest children and teach the other four at home in Derwood.


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