Proposed legislation that would have equated truancy with child abuse in California raised suspicions among homeschool advocates it represented a fresh attack on home-based education.
The legislation, titled SB 950, would have added "habitual truancy" to the definition of child abuse by amending the Welfare and Institutions Code Section 300. According to the language of the bill, it called for children who have up to five unexcused absences from public school to be immediately taken from their family and put into the juvenile court system. Parents would no longer have been given the opportunity to make their case to school district officials.
Amid clamor from advocates and the threat of a lawsuit, "the bill died two weeks ago," according to the office of state Sen. Richard Alarcón, the Democrat representing the San Fernando Valley who introduced the legislation on Feb. 21.
Spokesman Luis Tatino told WorldNetDaily Alarcón heard the concerns raised by homeschoolers, and decided the measure was "too far reaching" and needed to be amended. But authors had missed the deadline for revisions.
Tatino said the measure may come back in some other form, but stressed its intent is not to harm homeschoolers.
"There's no conspiracy here. The bill's entire intent and purpose was to protect kids who were being abused," he said.
According to Tatino, the Los Angeles city attorney's office authored the legislation in an effort to specifically crack down on parents who are sexually or physically abusing their children and are being sheltered from the system by the homeschool "loophole."
The city attorney's office did not return calls for comment.
World Net Daily has reported the state's laws and education code do not address homeschooling. This prompts both advocates and foes to interpret the void as being in favor of their stance.
Advocates such as the California Homeschool Network contend homeschooling has been accomplished legally under the education code's provision for private schools, which requires that the instructor be "capable of teaching" not credentialed and the annual filing of an affidavit to the California Department of Education, or CDE.
The filing of this R-4 affidavit, which notifies the CDE of the creation of a private school, has become known as the homeschooling "loophole," by government authorities who consider homeschooling illegal.
Last July, the office of former Superintendent Delaine Eastin issued a memo stating that parents without a teaching credential who homeschool their children are "operating outside the law."
Holding this view, some local school districts have ignored the R-4 affidavits and attempted to prosecute homeschooling parents on the basis that they're not obeying compulsory-attendance laws.
"I think this is part of a concerted effort on the part of public-school administrators to bring homeschooling families back into the fold, so to speak, and re-institutionalize their children," explained attorney Will Rogers, who successfully defended three homeschooling families against criminal truancy charges instigated by the Berkeley Unified School District in July 2000.
As World Net Daily reported Sandra Sorensen was threatened with jail by the Sacramento County district attorney's office after she formally withdrew her 10-year-old son from Carmichael Elementary School, where he was suffering harassment by his peers. Sorensen and her husband filed the affidavit to set up a private school within their home, but district officials determined the boy to be truant.
"Everyone deserves the right to choose how to educate their kids. It shouldn't be the government deciding," Sandra Sorensen maintained.
The district backed off the Sorensens following WND's report, which sparked public outrage. But Sandra Sorensen remained guarded.
"I don't think they're finished with me. I just don't trust them. Every time I think it's over, something else comes along," she said.
Fueling homeschoolers' nervousness, Eastin took her case to state legislators in August and urged them to intervene in the matter.
"Over the last few weeks, the Department of Education has been characterized in some circles as being engaged in a campaign to harass homeschoolers and to root out homeschooling in California," Eastin wrote in an Aug. 24 letter. "My staff and I have received dozens of angry telephone calls and written communications that unfairly assume that the department is misapplying the state's compulsory-education law in derogation of the rights of parents, and a handful of conservative publications have attacked our application of the law. None of these charges is true, of course, but the amount of misinformation, and passion, in these communications does make me believe that the situation cries out for a legislative solution."
By expanding the jurisdiction of the juvenile court to include truants, SB 950 would have given district attorneys the clear authority they have lacked to prosecute homeschooling parents. Homeschoolers feared it would be open season.
The Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit legal-defense organization, vowed should the bill become law, its attorneys would contest it in federal court as a fundamental violation of parental rights.
"This dangerous bill creates an unnecessary fear that parents will have their children taken with no due process whatsoever," said institute President Brad Dacus while the bill was still alive. "Those who would potentially lose their children as a result of this bill would include homeschoolers wrongfully accused of truancy or any child who has up to five unexcused absences. Such unexcused absences usually include family vacations outside scheduled school vacation days."
While Tatino seemed surprised by the frenzy over SB 950, advocates say they have to be vigilant and not allow any leeway for opponents of homeschooling.
"The problem with bills like this is that no matter how sincere the sponsors are, there are overzealous social service workers primarily in the L.A. and Berkeley area who will stress the limits of the law," Annette Hall, the legislative monitoring chair for the California Homeschool Network, told WorldNetDaily. "They'll engage in a witch hunt to pursue their own agenda. It's not a widespread problem, but we have to be diligent."