Unschoolers behaving badly & jeopardizing it for everyone

Homeschooling is legal in all 50 states, but each state has its’ own set of regulations regarding homeschoolers.   Some, like my home state of Indiana, require little to no reporting on the part of homeschooling parents regarding their chosen path of learning.

New York State is one of the more strict in the country, requiring quite a lot of  paperwork from families who choose to keep their children out of the school system.    The basic process, which I believe I mentioned in one of my earliest posts on this blog, goes like this:

Any family choosing to homeschool must first send the DOE (Dept. of Education) – specifically the (Central Office of Homeschooling, or Central Office, as I will refer to it) – a letter of intent.   You must do this every year and send a separate letter for every child.   In addition, you must submit an IHIP (Individualized Home Instruction Plan) detailing your proposed curriculum for the coming year.   Again, this must be submitted each year, one per child.     After that, you are required to submit quarterly reports that state your progress in each subject covered in the IHIP.   Finally, along with the 4th quarter report you must submit either an annual assessment or standardized test scores. Test scores are only required beginning in 5th grade, and only every other year after that.   Annual assessments must be sent in every year.

It’s pretty straightforward, and not all that difficult.   Except if you are unschoolers.  The Central Office recognizes the term ‘unschooling’, and I use it on all correspondence with them, opting not to try and educate them about my preference for the term life learning.    The IHIP is a challenge for unschoolers.   How can we know in advance what we will be studying?

The answer is that we can’t.   When we switched from traditional homeschooling to unschooling, I changed my IHIP accordingly.   I now tell the Central Office that we are unschooling and that as such I cannot report in advance what my children will be learning, but that I will send detailed quarterly reports outlining what we have learned.    And for the past three years, there has not been a problem.

Until this past week.

Our homeschooling office, upon receiving Letters of Intent and IHIPs, sends out Letters of Compliance.   These are basically letters telling you that your documentation conforms with NY State law, and you are good to go for the coming school year.    I got mine in the mail in mid-July, as I mentioned recently.   But as Murphy or the angry gods or somebody would have it, my compliance letters must have found their way into the recycling by accident (trust me, I’ve combed through every piece of paper in my apartment in the last 48 hours – my files have never been so organized) and I was compelled to email the Central Office to ask for replacements.    Normally I wouldn’t care if I had them on file or not, but this year NYCHEA (New York City Home Educators Alliance) is opting not to provide student ID’s for the kids, so Maya needs some sort of official documentation proving she is a homeschooler in case she is walking somewhere during school hours and is stopped by a police officer.  (This has happened to someone I know, who had her ID with her so it wasn’t a problem.)   Hence my need for the letter of compliance.

Rewind to a few days ago, when on one of the homeschool email lists came a post from another unschooling family who said their IHIP had been denied.  The irate mother posted about the injustice of this, saying she’d sent in almost exactly the same letter every year, and never been denied before.   She printed the text of her IHIP in the message, and like mine it was not specific about the details of what would be learned in the coming year.  A flurry of emails followed from other parents, some calm, others equally irate on behalf of the ‘denied’ family.

I kept quiet, not wanting to join in the drama, but privately wondered why my IHIP, which was similar in tone to the one the Central Office had rejected, had been approved for both Maya and Ben.

Cut to my email to the homeschooling office, sent this afternoon, requesting copies of my Letters of Compliance.   A short reply soon appeared in my inbox.  “Please Call.”   Uh-oh.    This could not be a good thing.  Would they really un-approve my IHIP?   Because of another ranting parent?    All kinds of scenarios played out in my head over the next hour until I spoke to the Director of the office.   None of them were pleasant.

The call itself was not unpleasant, though I was sweating it for the first few minutes.   I was told that my IHIPs are acceptable because of my detailed quarterly reports, but due to a situation with another family whose non-specific IHIP had been denied, the Central Office was now having to re-evaluate all unschooling IHIPs.    Great.    I was told that the Director came under serious fire from his employers for ever approving this other family’s IHIP.     Why?     The family in question sends a general IHIP, as I do.   This would not be a problem if they sent detailed quarterlies, but they don’t.   Their IHIP says something like, “We’ll study Math, Science, English, History and Grammar.”   And then their quarterly reads, “We’ve studied Math, Science, English, History and Grammar.”

Uh, excuse me?   Have you lost your minds?

It turns out that the Director of the Central Office of Homeschooling in New York City was afraid that I was asking for copies of my Letters of Compliance so that I could use it against him.   So that I could wave it back in his face and say, “See, you approved my IHIP, you hypocrite!  Why won’t you approve theirs?”    Which is why he detailed at length the reason mine had been approved and the other family’s had not.   I told him I try to stay out of the drama (very true, except of course on this blog) and that the only reason I was asking for the letter was so that Maya could carry a copy with her during the day.   Long Pause on the other end of the line.   So, he asked, I was not doing this because of the other family’s complaint?   No, it was just poorly timed coincidence.    My requested copies of the Letters of Compliance for Maya and Ben will be in the mail by morning and attached to them copies of my last quarterly, so that the Central Office can cover themselves if anyone questions them on this decision.

Look, I don’t like all the regulations the State puts on us either (particularly the testing requirements), but if you want to be an activist and try to change the laws, sending in paperwork which blatantly gives the finger to the system isn’t the way to go.   Why?   Well mostly because all the people who work in the Central Office of Homeschooling are state employees.  They don’t make the laws, but if they don’t at least attempt to enforce them, their jobs are on the line.   The only mistake the Central Office made in this regard was that they probably should have denied this family after the first year.

I’m sure I’ll get a lot of flak for this, but families who act the way this family did put us all at risk.   You want to ‘rage against the machine’?   Do it in Albany.   Write to the Governor and your Congressmen.   Start petitions, get statements from former educators who support you.   Show examples from other, less stringent, states.     DO NOT call and scream at your local Director, who since taking this position 5 years ago has made an attempt to treat every family individually, but who could easily decide all unschoolers are wackos, deny all of our IHIPs and have New York State Law on his side while he does it.    Remember that he is just doing his job and have a little empathy and understanding for the massive task he undertakes.  There is a reason companies and governments like standardized evaluation forms; it makes their jobs so much easier.   Imagine what it must be like when over 1000 IHIPs appear in the mail  (I have no idea of the actual number – it may well be a lot more) and not one of them is like another.   Some are pages long with endless textbook and curriculum citations.  Some, like mine, are one page letters with no curriculum named.    It gives me a headache just thinking about it.

Being opposed to the requirements does not entitle you to act like you are above it all and treat people like dirt.   Show a little compassion, and put your energy into positive change.    Raise your kids well and allow them to be living examples of what learning looks like outside of school.

Protest the powers that be with dignity, not the employees with derision.    I want unschooling to be better than that.   To be the example others want to follow and not the path they go out of their way to avoid.

We can do better.   If we want things to change, we must.

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