Although most homeschooling families are blissfully unaware of the situation, on June 17 the Ontario Ministry of Education released a high-level policy memorandum that will significantly change the face of homeschooling in the province, effective immediately. Homeschooling in Ontario is now purely at the expense of parents who must also pay into a publicly funded school system, even though they receive no benefit from it. Despite this unfairness, homeschooling families in the province have appreciated the autonomy and privacy they have had.
However, while the funding situation has not changed, autonomy and privacy aspects have undergone extensive revision. The new policy says that, “Parents who decide to provide homeschooling for their child(ren) should notify the school board of their intent in writing. Parents should provide the name, gender, and date of birth of each child who is receiving homeschooling, and the telephone number and address of the home.” Moreover, the notification is to be given year to year. “If parents decide to continue to provide homeschooling in subsequent years, they should give notification each year in writing prior to Sept. 1 to the school board in whose jurisdiction their child last attended school,” says the memorandum.
Policy/Program Memorandum No. 131 also gives a list of “some of the reasons that may give a board cause” to launch an investigation into the homeschooling practices of a family – an investigation that, according to homeschooling families, can be a harrowing experience. Topping the list of reasons is the “refusal of a parent to notify the board in writing of the intent to provide homeschooling.”
One homeschooling parent, who wished to remain unnamed, told LifeSite, “Common sense would suggest that the submission of names to school boards … would spell trouble.” There are an estimated 20,000 homeschooled students in the province, but the Ministry of Education and school boards have the names of only about 2,500. While the ministry may currently be homeschool friendly, future anti-homeschooling governments could create havoc for homeschoolers if a full listing of families involved is given.
The new policy has been a source of conflict within the homeschooling leadership in Ontario. Discussions on issues related to the policy have been underway with homeschool leaders from the Ontario Christian Home Educators’ Connection, the Home School Legal Defence Association, the Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents, the Catholic Home Schoolers’ Association – Ontario and the Ministry of Education for a number of years. Early on in the negotiations, the CHSA-O balked at the direction the meetings were going in with the concerns that: 1) parental primacy in the education of children was compromised, and 2) an annual notification form, not required by law, was now to become standard practice.
The groups that continued in discussions with the ministry say the memorandum would have been significantly worse had they not been part of the process.
OCHEC president Jake Zwart, one of the participants in the deliberations with the ministry, told LifeSite that he was unhappy with the final wording of the document. Speaking of the memorandum’s indication that refusal to report was grounds for investigation, Zwart said, “We let the ministry know that that shouldn’t be there, but they put it in anyways.”
The HSLDA representative at the meetings, Jack Baribeau, told LifeSite that at the beginning of the negotiations, the HSLDA informed the ministry that if one of the statements in the policy memorandum concerning parental primacy was not removed “there is no sense in us talking any more.” However, the line was retained in the document nonetheless.
Homeschoolers have long fought a mentality that believes the state, rather than parents, is primarily responsible for children’s education. The following wording in the document clearly indicates that such a troubling mentality is reinforced in the memorandum: “It is the responsibility of school boards to excuse children from attendance at school when homeschooling is provided.”
Both Zwart and Baribeau said that the document directs school boards to accept without investigation the fact that satisfactory education is taking place in a home, if parents notify the board. Interestingly, the memorandum says that the board “should,” not “must,” accept the written notification of parents each year as evidence that satisfactory instruction is being provided at home. In cases where parents pull their children out of school to begin homeschooling, the directive to the boards to accept notification from such parents as sufficient proof of satisfactory instruction will come as welcome news to homeschoolers, because a cash-strapped board would have the ministry’s direction not to hassle parents who choose homeschooling. However, Zwart acknowledged that for parents whose children have never attended school, and are thus off the radar screens of boards, notification could invite trouble.
Although the document at face value seems to suggest that the ministry will have grounds to investigate if parents fail to report, Baribeau points to more subtle wording that hints at something different. “It says ‘refusal’ to notify the board,” said Baribeau, explaining that such a refusal could only take place if the board sent an initial notice to the homeschooling family questioning why their school-aged children were not in school and the parents didn’t answer.
The ministry, however, seems to have a different opinion on what its memorandum means. A final vote on the memorandum took place on Jan. 23, 2002. Jim Sebastian, the provincial school attendance counsellor, recorded a vote on a “package” deal to have, “Homeschoolers notify school boards annually of their intention to homeschool. The school board intervenes only if there is a compelling reason to do so.” The record of the meeting, which was obtained by LifeSite, indicates that the CHSA-O cast the only dissenting vote, while the HSLDA supported the package “with the understanding that it will not push its members into notifying school boards of their intention to home school.” The OFTP supported “the intention of the package as described.”
Myriam Doylend of the CHSA-O told LifeSite that the memorandum replaces another memo from 1988 that had similar provisions for reporting. However, Doylend pointed out that the former memo was at a much lower level than the current one, which is only a step away from legislation. “Most important, the old Johnson memo was overtly opposed by a unified homeschooling movement and all challenges to homeschooling parents based on that memo were successfully dealt with in favour of the parents,” she said.
Doylend said homeschooling families may be intimidated into filing notifications with school boards, especially given that some homeschool leaders have at least tacitly supported the program.
None of the homeschooling associations with which LifeSite spoke are encouraging their memberships to voluntarily send notifications to school boards without first being contacted by the boards. What the Ministry of Education thinks of such a tactic is inconsequential, since it cannot legally acquire records on children from other ministries and would have no way of finding out about homeschooled children who had never been in the school system. However, if children of school age are reported as not being in school by neighbours or others, authorities may investigate.Baribeau said should a parent decide not to file notification with a school board even after being asked to do so by the board, the HSLDA will defend his right not to file.