Home School Court Report
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No. 6

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by Annabelle Robertson
California Homeschoolers Unite

A few months ago, California home educators found themselves facing an unexpected “check” in the home-schooling chess game. But by banding together, they successfully declared “checkmate”—and helped reverse In re Rachel L., a decision by the Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District in Los Angeles that could have had devastating consequences for homeschooling families around the country. Because it grew out of a juvenile court case, which was confidential, Rachel L. was completely unexpected. Then, on February 29, 2008, the story broke on WorldNetDaily.

“We first heard about the decision when a reporter called and asked what we thought about it,” said Roy Hanson, executive director of Family Protection Ministries (FPM), a California non-profit advocacy agency. “We were stunned.”

Who Did the Pro Bono Work?

The law firms that represented California’s three statewide homeschool member organizations in their joint amicus brief deserve our recognition and appreciation.

  • Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP represented Christian Home Educators Association of California.
  • Baker & Mckenzie represented California Homeschool Network.
  • Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati represented HomeSchool Association of California.

These were by no means the only pro bono attorneys involved in the case. HSLDA salutes all the lawyers and firms who donated many hours of labor on behalf of homeschool freedom in California.

Loren Mavromati, president of the board of trustees of the California Homeschool Network (CHN), was also taken aback.

“Homeschoolers were shocked that a court would make such a broad decision without having reached out to at least one of the groups within California or to Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) for input,” she said. “We were also all shocked that a case involving a single family could have such impact on all of us.”

Debbie Schwarzer, an attorney and representative for the HomeSchool Association of California (HSC), said that she was “astounded that anything could have gotten this far without any of the big groups being aware of it.”

“Reading the opinion,” she added, “I knew the parents … couldn’t possibly be members of any of our groups, since we would have gotten involved.”

Roy Hanson and Jim Davis
Roy Hanson (left) and Jim Davis (right), Family Protection Ministries

Homeschoolers swung into action. Recognizing the need for unity, leaders of California’s three largest homeschool organizations-CHN, HSC, and the Christian Home Educators Association of California (CHEA)—along with FPM and HSLDA began to strategize via teleconferencing.

“Our relationship with CHN, CHEA, FPM, and HSLDA was so good, I talked to all of them before I even spoke to the HSC board about the case,” Schwarzer said. “When the Rachel case broke, Roy Hanson of FPM was immediately on the phone to all of us arranging a preliminary conference call.”

“The groundwork we had laid over the past five years was key to allowing our groups instantly to start working together on a coordinated response to the case,” she continued. “We decided on legal strategy during our conference calls and then executed that strategy at our own group levels.”

“One of the coalition’s first concerns,” said HSLDA President Mike Smith, “was getting the message out that no new legislation was needed or wanted by California homeschoolers. We believed the better course of action at that point was to pursue all available legal court procedures to get the decision reversed.”

Impressed by the efficient teamwork of the coalition, HSLDA Litigation Attorney Jim Mason described the many ways the groups got the message out: “FPM coordinated the conference calls related to the legislature, the governor’s office, and the department of education. HSC, CHN, and CHEA did an incredible job of educating their members and the media on the issues and preparing to take legislative lobbying action if necessary. HSLDA coordinated the conference calls with the attorneys involved in eventually writing amicus briefs in the Rachel L. case.”

Loren Mavromati
Loren Mavromati, California Homeschool Network

Although the different groups had worked together before, all agreed that this was an exceptional circumstance—and a crucial time to collaborate, if they hoped to defeat the ruling.

“It would be hard to overstate the importance of our working together,” said HSC’s Debbie Schwarzer. “When our work first centered on the legislature, trying to convince them that no legislation was needed and informing them about what homeschoolers are like—including their diversity and what they want—we agreed on a message. We met jointly with key persons, including people in the governor’s office. We issued a joint statement. I think that unified message coming from all the groups helped everyone—the legislature, the media, the court—understand that we were working together and could not be divided.”

“My experience working with Mike Smith has been tremendously positive,” Schwarzer said. “He has shown the highest respect for the opinions of the groups working here and understands the incredible diversity of the California homeschooling community and the need to have a statutory scheme that enables everyone who wants to teach their children in accordance with their principles.”

“HSLDA has always offered a service to homeschooling families that CHEA cannot offer, and that is legal protection,” said Mary Schofield, an attorney and a 15-year board member of CHEA. “HSLDA was always there for us. Not only are they great attorneys, but they have devoted their lives and careers to defending homeschooling under the law.”

Debbie Schwarzer
Debbie Schwarzer, Homeschool Association of California

After the court agreed to rehear the case, it became even more crucial for the groups to act as a team, Schwarzer added.

“I see [this coalition] as a tremendous opportunity for us to stay connected and stay unified, especially if we have to address the issue of legislation in the future,” said HSLDA Chairman Mike Farris.

The court of appeal agreed to rehear the case on March 25, at the request of attorneys for the children’s father. Interested organizations on both sides of the issue were urged to file amicus, or “friend-of-court” briefs. But because the final ruling would be made by the same three judges who had rendered the initial Rachel L. decision, homeschoolers knew they would need top-notch legal advice.

“We shared information and decided who would do what on which brief,” Schwarzer said. “That allowed the court to see a few very well-written briefs from the joint state groups and from HSLDA, [which] represented a huge proportion of California homeschoolers."

A number of top California law firms volunteered pro bono attorney time to help with the case. Each of the three state homeschooling groups—HSC, CHN, and CHEA—worked with these firms to write a joint amicus brief, providing the court with a detailed examination of how California law allows for homeschooling under the private school exemption. The brief was submitted on May 15.

“I think we made a much more powerful statement to the court by filing a brief as the California groups,” said Loren Mavromati of CHN.

Together with Focus on the Family, HSLDA and FPM’s Private & Home Educators of California also submitted a brief on May 19, showing evidence of homeschooling’s success and summarizing the constitutional basis for the right to homeschool.

In addition, the California governor, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, and the California Department of Education all filed amicus briefs. Each supported the view that parents could homeschool under the private school exemption in California. Of the 16 briefs that were filed, 14 supported the interpretation of the law that allowed homeschoolers this option.

Mary Schofield
Mary Schofield, Christian Home Educators of California

On June 23, the appellate court heard oral arguments. Then, nearly seven weeks later, on August 8, the court reversed its initial ruling in Rachel L. It declared that homeschooling under the private school statute was indeed legally permissible in California. HSLDA, FPM, and the three California homeschooling groups held their final Rachel L. conference call—this time, a jubilant one—after the ruling.

“This decision is great news for homeschooling parents in California,” Schofield said. “Homeschooling works, and the court is right in recognizing that the legislature allows this. That’s a huge burden lifted, not to worry about it being illegal.”

Schwarzer agreed. “We all believed very strongly that our interpretation of state law was correct, we made forceful, well-supported arguments, and ultimately that view was adopted by the court.”

All insist that even though homeschooling is now safeguarded under California law, it’s imperative that home educators around the country stay informed through their statewide organizations and become a part of the work effort to maintain homeschooling in a positive light.

The issue could easily come up again. “We have to keep an eye out and protect our freedoms, because they can disappear again. We must pay attention to what is going on around us and be ready to defend our freedom,” said Schofield.

“If there are statewide organizations, they need to work together and with HSLDA, and the time to start doing that is well before there is a crisis,” Schwarzer added. “If each group comes to the process with an open mind and a willingness both to listen and lead, it can work well. I think the experience in California, where people feared that the groups couldn’t work together, is proof.”

Mavromati’s advice sums up the successful unity behind this landmark victory. “Sometimes we get wrapped up in our differences—secular and religious, school-based and independent, academic and unschooler,” she said. “We forget that we all have one thing in common—we want our basic right to homeschool to stay legal. Homeschoolers would be wise to put aside these differences and come together, establishing communication and trust between groups so that, if problems do arise, we are prepared to work together toward common goals.”

About the author Annabelle Robertson

Annabelle Robertson is the author of The Southern Girl’s Guide to Surviving the Newlywed Years: How to Stay Sane Once You’ve Caught Your Man, winner of the 2006 USA Best Books Award for humor. A former attorney and California resident, Robertson now writes feature profiles and investigative articles for a daily newspaper in Sumter, SC. Her award-winning writing also appears in national publications, including WebMD, Paste Magazine, Muscle & Fitness Hers, and Crosswalk.com, the leading provider of faith-based content on the Internet. A popular speaker at conferences and seminars, Robertson has been married to her husband, an Air Force chaplain, since 1994. They have two small children.