|Early History of FHE|
Below is a first-hand account from two people were involved in home education in the early 1980’s when home education became an issue with “authority” figures and who were instrumental in establishing FHE in 1983. This article was written just after the events and tells the story of FHE's beginnings and the establishment of the Missouri Statutes that regulate home education.
EDUCATIONAL FREEDOM IN MISSOURI:
The Recent Battle for Greater Freedom
by Charles (Jim) Rogers of St. Charles and Saralee Rhoads of Sibley
RETURN TO HOME EDUCATION
The Revised Statutes of Missouri (RSMo) have made provisions for home education for over one hundred and fifty years in one form or another. Few people made use of these provisions, however, until the early 1980's. Dissatisfaction with the public school system's lack of academic preparation and the deterioration of students' moral standards drove increasing numbers of Missouri residents to reconsider the threats being issued, no action was taken.
HOME EDUCATING FAMILIES AND CONFLICT INCREASE
However, as the grass-roots movement for parents to educate their children at home accelerated, concern grew in the minds of public school authorities and the Division of Family Services (DFS) agents. History is unclear whether the public school people or the social services agents were the original instigators, but beginning in 1983 the DFS began threatening parents with prosecution for educating their own children at home. The attacks continued with increasing frenzy through 1984 and early 1985. Intense conflict between parents and state agents revolved around the term "substantially equivalent." Many parents were threatened with the terrifying prospect of losing custody of their children to the state. A small number of children were actually placed in state custody for brief periods before legal action by the parents forced their return.
INJUSTICE IN JUVENILE COURT
It was difficult for the parents to understand why they were required to appear in Juvenile Court, the court that was established to handle juvenile offenders. In this "court," home educating parents could not present evidence in their defense; could not call witnesses; could not claim their constitutional rights had been violated; and in fact, did not even have to be present to be convicted. A "hearing" was held before an Administrative Judge. Since the matter was only a hearing and not officially a court action, the parents could not take refuge under the provisions of the United States Constitution. During this time, state leaders of the Missouri home school movement encouraged home educators to document in diary form all contacts made with them by DFS agents and public school officials. In addition, they were advised to prepare notarized affidavits of certain harassing statements, actions, and threats made by these same people.
SEARCH FOR AN ATTORNEY
Home school leaders searched for an attorney who had familiarity with the home school provisions of the Revised Statutes of Missouri, but without success. Eventually, however, attorney Arnold T. Phillips (of St. Louis) was selected but had to be "brought up to speed" about home education in general, federal and state case law, and the legal history of the home schooling movement. Mr. Phillips suggested searching for other home schooling families in order to file a "class action" suit.
FOUNDING OF "FAMILIES FOR HOME EDUCATION"
Jim and Laura Rogers (of St. Charles), whose request initiated the founding of "Families for Home Education" in 1983 then headed up by its first Executive Director, Saralee Rhoads (of Sibley), were now requesting the recently formed organization to be a signer of this suit. To maximize unity and effectiveness the organization was open to all people, regardless of color, religion, creed, or national descent. With FHE's backing, the class action suit had the necessary numbers to file.
In time, twenty-five dossiers documenting harassment of home educating parents were accumulated by home school leaders, complete with diaries and notarized affidavits by witnesses. These were reviewed by the attorney and the leaders of FHE. The dossiers were pared down to two cases which best exemplified the position of Missouri's home educators. Throughout this period of intense pressure, the vast majority of home educators held tightly to the moral support given by FHE and refused to comply with demands by the authorities that their children be returned to public schools.
CLASS ACTION SUIT FILED
A suit was filed in late 1984 in US District Court on behalf of the David Ellis (of Augusta) and Charles Bowles (of Warrenton) families and FHE against three school superintendents, the head of the Division of Family Services, the Commissioner of Education for the State of Missouri, and twenty members of the DFS and Juvenile Court. The suit became known as Ellis, et al., Plaintiffs, vs. O'Hara, et al., Defendants.
The purpose of the suit was to declare the Missouri compulsory education statute void for "vagueness" and "overbreadth." The plaintiffs maintained that it was unconstitutionally vague because of its use of the term "substantially equivalent" to describe the level of instruction required for children educated at home. The plaintiffs also argued that it was overbroad in that the statute "in all its applications directly restricts protected first amendment activity and does not employ means narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest."
Initially, the suit sought multi-million dollar punitive damages from each of the defendants under Title 42, Section 1983, of the US Civil Rights Law. However, the plaintiffs ultimately dropped the punitive monetary damages claim against the defense as an indicator of good faith. The home educators didn't want money...only the freedom to educate their children at home without harassment or obstruction by any government official.
At this juncture, the suit evolved from a civil rights violation to an attack on the state's compulsory attendance statute as being unconstitutionally vague. Home schoolers' concerns centered on the following statutory language: ". . . during the usual school hours which shall, in the judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction, be at least substantially equivalent to the instruction given to children of like age in the day schools in locality in which the child resides. . . "
By Federal Court Order of July 5, 1985, Judge F. Nangle ruled that the portion of RSMo (1978) statute 167.031, which related to instruction at home, be and is void. The court limited its ruling only to the "vagueness" question. Since there was no alternative statutory provision for home education in Missouri, the Court transferred to the Legislature the responsibility of enacting a new statute by May 15, 1986, the final date of the 1986 Missouri Legislative Session.
Local leaders in the St. Louis metropolitan area held meetings at the Ron Huffmeier (of St. Charles) home between July and December of 1985 for the purpose of preparing some legislative guidelines of their own. At the request of Laura Rogers, Phil Lancaster (of Arnold), wrote a booklet entitled Academic Freedom: Home-Based Private Education to inform and educate the legislators about our desires and to summarize our position as home educators.
LEGISLATURE TAKES OVER
During the 1985-1986 session, the Missouri legislature took up various bills relating to education. One of the bills was numbered SB 666 — the content was as heinous as the number. It died a mercifully quick death, shunned by the hapless sponsor. Families for Home Education led the fight for a bill, sponsored by MO State Senator John Schneider-D (of Florissant), that would protect the constitutional rights of home educators. The organization proposed a bill which not only eliminated the words "substantially equivalent," but went on to eliminate the entire phrase in which these words appeared. FHE then engaged the services of two registered lobbyists, Laura Rogers and Steve Fortney (of Independence).
If the attitude of some of the home educators at that time seemed to be a bit paranoid, as some have suggested, it must be borne in mind that they had been subjected to severe and unremitting harassment by state agents during the preceding two years. DFS agents told many parents that if they failed to follow an agent's every wish, "We'll take your children away from you." In one case a DFS agent told the parents before they went to Juvenile Court, "Pack the kid's clothes in a suitcase and bring it with you, because the kid's not coming home." These were parents whose only crime had been to love their children so much that they had removed them from an unsavory environment to offer them a better education.
Morale remained high in the home educators' ranks; many parents and their children frequented Jefferson City, lobbying on their own. Friends, relatives and fellow church members carried signs as well. One turnout at the State Capitol Building was reportedly one of the biggest in history. Home education leaders, Mark Mabon (of Sedalia), Tom Dreschel (of Columbia), Steve Fortney, and Jim Rogers were responsible for negotiating an 11th hour agreement which allowed for minimal state requirements and, to the relief of all home schooling families, eliminated the DFS and public school officials as investigative authorities. Author-educator, John Stormer (of Florissant) was also very instrumental in the lobbying efforts as he had a vested interest that any new law would not adversely affect private schools either.
NEW LAW PASSED
In the end our proposed bill did not prevail. Instead, a much more contorted bill, Senate Bill 795, went down to the wire, and passed the legislature in the last three minutes of the last day of the 1985-1986 session. In spite of its problems, however, this bill did give complete freedom to parents to educate their children at home within certain guidelines easily met by any conscientious home educator.
Prior to the passage of the new bill, certain legislators attempted to obtain FHE's endorsement. FHE's leaders wisely declined, but agreed not to oppose the proposed legislation. If we ever have to take court action again, no one will be able to say that FHE endorsed or asked for this law.
FREEDOM HAS A PRICE
Missouri's home educators learned for themselves the ancient lesson that freedom is never free. Our current freedom to educate our children at home is the result of many long hours of prayer, lobbying, negotiation, education, letter writing and watch-dogging. In the end, and as a result of their tremendous display of unity, home schoolers secured for themselves what many have said is one of the best home education environments in the nation. It is a fact that many families have moved to Missouri because of this greater educational freedom.
There will always be those who would steal that hard won freedom if we do not remain vigilant and united. So to you, in this day and in this hour, heed this sober warning — Freedom is both dear and expensive. It must be fought for to be gained and vigorously defended once attained. May God grant us the collective wisdom and strength of spirit to guard our freedom well. May God bless "Families for Home Education."