The Delconte Case: The First Step in NC Homeschool Freedom

4 Nov 2015

For a quarter of a century, home educators in North Carolina have found it relatively easy to comply with our homeschool law. Anybody who has had much contact with the Division of Non-Public Education (DNPE) has learned that everybody there is homeschool friendly. This atmosphere goes a long way to make dealing with North Carolina state authorities a generally pleasant experience. It has been this way for so long that we forget, or perhaps, have never known about, the great sacrifices the homeschool pioneers made so that we can educate our children at home in relative safety from state intrusion.

Many of those pioneers learned about homeschooling when they heard Raymond and Dorothy Moore being interviewed by James Dobson on the Focus on the Family radio program or when they read John Holt’s book Teach Your Own or his homeschool newsletter Growing without Schooling. The Moores were education specialists who had done research on early childhood education. Because of their findings, they tried to reform the school systems of America from within, citing their research. Their efforts were met with nothing but resistance, so they published a book for the general public, Better Late Than Early, in 1975, and continued to publish information about their research which promoted home education. John Holt was a classroom teacher who observed profound negative changes in children after they began to attend traditional school. He, too, tried to reform the system, but to no avail. He began promoting unschooling (a type of homeschooling). In 1977 his Growing without Schooling was the first newsletter dedicated to home education.

The Clamp Down
Homeschooling is now widely accepted in North Carolina as a good alternative method of education. It was a much different climate for home education in the early 1980s. Stories were told of homeschoolers living in rural areas who were able to stay in the shadows and exist without interference. However, those living in more urban areas did not have that advantage. In 1979, the Organized Christian Schools of North Carolina (CSNC) and the North Carolina Association of Christian Schools (NCACS) were successful in pushing through legislation that took the oversight of non-public schools away from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and placed the oversight in the Governor’s Office Division of Non-Public Education (DNPE). The new law was much less restrictive for non-public schools because it eliminated many of the operating regulations that were in place when DPI had oversight. Prospective homeschoolers saw this as an opportunity to legally operate as private schools. Later that year, NC Attorney General Rufus Edminsten issued an opinion that homeschools, 1) can receive no funding from the state, 2) must be accredited by the State Board of Education or by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools or be an active member of the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools, 3) must have students from more than one family.

In August of 1981, Larry Delconte of Harnett County, was denied the right to homeschool his children, so he sued the state for that right. The court agreed that his homeschool met the requirements of the compulsory attendance laws, but the state appealed the decision. This began a protracted battle in the courts.

In 1982, while the Delcontes were fighting their battle, Peter Duro, a Tyrrell County resident, was prosecuted for violating the compulsory attendance law by establishing a homeschool. He claimed that under the First Amendment, his religious liberties allowed him to educate his children with accountability to the state. A federal court agreed with Duro that he had the right to school his children at home.

The small homeschool community was stunned when the NC Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s favorable ruling in the Delconte case in December 1983. The Delcontes then appealed to the NC Supreme Court. Homeschoolers received another disappointment when in January, 1984, the US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s favorable ruling in the Duro case. The Duros appealed to the US Supreme Court, but the Court declined to hear the case. During this time period, George Quick, of Stanly County, and Bob Groves, of Ashe County, were arrested and booked for homeschooling, and many more were threatened. Carolyn Winslow, in her recollections of that time, said that fear was rampant among home educators. During school hours they drew the drapes and kept their children hidden indoors. At the same time, homeschoolers realized that if they were going to have the freedom to educate their children, they needed to learn how to influence their legislators.

Larry Cockerham was a biology professor at Campbell University while he was homeschooling his two children. A law professor at Campbell warned him that the Harnett County Superintendent of Public Schools, Mr. Alton Gray, who had started proceedings against the Delcontes, would probably get the authorities to shut down his homeschool as well. Larry was friends with a deputy on the local police force. He asked the deputy if she would warn him when a summons was issued so he would not be arrested in front of his children. Several days later, the deputy called Larry to warn him that a criminal summons had been issued to bring him in. Rather than waiting to be arrested, he had his family leave the house, and he went to the police station to turn himself in. They booked and released him. Next, Larry called Alton Gray, with whom he had already had many conversations about home education, and said, “Mr. Gray you have made a mistake.” Mr. Gray agreed but said that it was Larry’s fault because he was homschooling. Mr. Gray explained that he had rescinded the summons. Later Larry learned that Mr. Gray had called the police station to cancel the criminal summons just after Larry had been booked and released. Apparently, the North Carolina Superintendent of Public Schools had called Mr. Gray to tell him to leave homeschoolers alone. After this incident, Larry and his wife, Lavonna, became active in lobbying for homeschooling. (He and his entire family were in the NC Supreme Court when the Delconte case was argued.)

NCHE Begins
Concerns about the arrests and court rulings against homeschoolers prompted the formation of North Carolinians for Home Education (NCHE) with the intention of encouraging and organizing homeschoolers across the state. They began with organizational meetings in public libraries in early 1984.

There was a meeting in Jamestown and those organizing it worked hard to locate as many homeschoolers as possible. They contacted Focus on the Family and the Moores to get names and addresses of people from North Carolina who had corresponded with questions about homeschooling. They sent out invitations, and that meeting—held at Solomon’s Porch on March 31, 1984—brought together groups of homeschoolers from all over the state under the banner of NCHE. Three mailing lists were developed based on geography. The families at the meeting didn’t want a list with all their names that could possibly fall into the hands of the authorities. There was a panic when, during the meeting, it was learned that a reporter from the Charlotte Observer was present. People thought they would be reported to the authorities. It turns out that this reporter was only interested in homeschooling his family.

The first issue of the NCHE newsletter, the Greenhouse Report was dated May 1984 and was sent to the 100 home educators who were brave enough to add their names to the NCHE mailing list. The Greenhouse Report was created to keep readers informed about legal actions against homeschoolers, strategies to reduce the chances of being arrested, parents’ legal rights and information on curriculum and legislation. Homeschoolers were encouraged to be politically involved, and NCHE printed brochures and educational packets for parents to use in explaining home education to a largely ignorant public and on planned trips to the NC General Assembly.

The Victory
May 7, l985, proved to be a fateful day. The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Delcontes. Under the current law, Chapter 115C, Article 39 of the North Carolina Code, known unofficially as the Private School Law, homeschooling would be allowed. “I remember…it was so exciting…we were all on the porch of the legislative building when we found out, and we all just cheered….We were euphoric, but we knew it was just the beginning of the fight.” (taken from The Legal Battle for Home Schooling in North Carolina, by Jackie Burkhardt.)

The Delcontes did not set out to go down in history or become homeschool heroes. They were just a quiet family who wanted to educate their children at home and were willing to fight for that right. They didn’t really want the limelight. As a result of their willingness to fight and put themselves in the public eye, a substantial step in the freedom to homeschool was made. While the Delconte name did go down in homeschool history, there were many other courageous families who sacrificed so that homeschoolers would have the freedom to homeschool in NC. 

Editor’s Note: This article was taken from A History of Homeschooling in NC, Parts I and II. For the rest of the history go to http://www.nche.com/history.

GREENHOUSE is NCHE's flagship publication. 

GREENHOUSE magazine is published fall and spring plus an annual graduate issue in May. GREENHOUSE is mailed to NCHE members.

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