Home Visitations, the Law, and the Credibility of NC Homeschoolers

16 Oct 2013

Editorial by Kevin McClain, President of NCHE

Approximately two weeks ago, the newly appointed director of the Division of Non-Public Education, David Mills, announced his plans to randomly select a small percentage of NC homeschools for an invitation to visit and inspect the records required by law to be kept by homeschoolers. He was beginning with five homeschools.

These homeschools received a letter informing them that 30 minutes was the time allotted for the visit, the inspection would only involve the records required by the law (their attendance, immunization and standardized test records) and that the remainder of the time Mr Mills would avail himself to address any questions the homeschool administrator had concerning compliance with NC homeschool law. The letter gave a date and time for the visit but also provided for the homeschool to call and offer alternative dates and times.

On behalf of NCHE, I contacted David Mills to discuss the plans. We spoke at length. Mr. Mills informed me that the homeschools randomly selected could decline, without penalty, even though these types of record inspections are authorized in the law. Given that DNPE has not engaged in home inspections for many years, and instead has utilized a mail or online voluntary record submission, I asked specifically the reasoning behind the change in inspection activity. The reason given for this change was because Mr. Mills believed it would be a service to the NC homeschooling community. Recent events had caused the public to question the accountability of NC homeschoolers and the credibility of our system of governance.  

It was NCHE's assessment that Mill's plan was not in violation of the law, because according to Article 39 of chapter 115C of the General Statutes, sections 115C-549, 115C-557, 115C-563 and 115C-564, homeschools are to make required records available for inspection by a "duly authorized representative" at the "principal's office." In other words, DNPE officials are granted authority by NC Law to inspect the records in the principal's office. NCHE contacted Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) for their view, and Dee Black, HSLDA's NC attorney, affirmed this assessment. Moreover, NCHE recognized that David Mill's plan strove to continue the history of good will DNPE officials have sought to develop with NC homeschoolers. The fact that the inspection was such a small sample (less that .01%), had no consequences for declining, that he was willing to inspect records at the front door, and that Mills was making time available to the homeschool administrator to address any questions that might exist were all evidences of his good will and good governance, seeking to strike a balance within the law, mediating between NC citizens who practice homeschool and those who question the very validity of the practice.

In the morning of Oct. 14, David Mills announced that he had decided not to carry out his plans. I again contacted David Mills to discuss the change. Mr. Mills informed me that he had received calls from homeschoolers expressing their dismay concerning the plan. His assessment was that his plan was misunderstood.  

On Oct 14, Lt Gov. Dan Forest issued a press release ("Random Homeschool Searches Need To Stop") publicly denouncing the plan, calling DNPE's lawfully authorized inspections "searches" and "warrantless entry by government officials."  Moreover, the press release quotes Lt. Gov. Forest as saying DNPE's "policy is intrusive, unnecessary, and has the potential to infringe on the constitutionally-protected privacy rights of tens of thousands of North Carolina homeschool families.” 

NC home educators are fortunate to have a Division of Non-Public Education, staffed with public officials who understand and respect a family's right to educational freedom. We are also fortunate that DNPE officials have never sought to implement the full force the law authorizes. Historically, DNPE officials have had amiable relations with NC homeschoolers. In the 1980s, when our law was first in effect, DNPE officials worked hard to visit each private school and homeschool across the state. Some inspectors were even hosted by gracious NC homeschoolers. The rapid growth in homeschooling caused home visitations to become less practical, and they turned to other means such as mail and now Internet that were deemed more efficacious. However, record submission for inspection is not required by law, and so paper and electronic record submission programs were rightly understood by DNPE and NC homeschools to be voluntary.    

It is my view that DNPE is carrying out their duty to NC citizens in inspecting records. It is the law that NC homeschoolers keep certain records, and it is the duty of DNPE officials to testify to their veracity. This activity is characteristic of good governance.  Moreover, it serves an important public function. It allows the state to mediate between me, a person who favors home education, and my neighbors, some of who find the practice questionable. By inspecting my records and verifying their existence, DNPE officials can confirm the lawfulness of my family's educational activity. 

By analogy, NC citizens have a right to drive a vehicle. But the state also has a right to verify that the driver of a vehicle has met the requirements of the law, the publicly-negotiated standards of conduct, concerning a vehicle. They may verify a driver's speed, a driver's obtainment of a license and insurance, the satisfaction of car safety standards and even a driver's state of intoxication.  None of these inspection activities make a person a better driver. Rather their presence helps create a culture which dissuades irresponsibility. What is agreed is that the danger of radical irresponsibility concerning vehicles is unacceptable. We, as a public community, have therefore worked to mitigate that danger. None of our plans are perfect, but none of these activities are an invasion of privacy. Every analogy has its faults, and this one does as well.  I don't know of any activity that is comparable to educating a child, nor any relationship that is comparable to  the relationship between a parent and a child. However, I do believe that recent events have called the accountability and credibility of home educators into question. Part of our credibility is our commitment to the public good and our proper understanding of good governance and the law. 

The characterization of DNPE's planned visits by some as overreaching fails to meet the standards of credibility we wish to achieve. Characterization of the inspection as  "searches" and "warrantless entry by government officials" of a residence is factually incorrect. The scheduling of a visit to a NC homeschool by a DNPE official is not a "search" of a home.  It is mutually-agreed upon inspection of the records at the homeschool's "principal's office."  Because of 4th Amendment rights, for those who are uncomfortable having a DNPE official in their home, the inspection could even be held at the front door. But to characterize the activity as "intrusive" is false, given that the law requires the records to be kept and available for inspection, and that the meeting would have been planned and a date and time mutually agreed upon by the parties.  Calling it "unnecessary" and finally, to declare that an activity has "potential to infringe on the constitutionally-protected privacy rights" is to encourage speculation and distrust in legitimate public service.  

Raising healthy, productive children is a moral public service every family is engaged in, and good governance cannot help but touch upon it. Good governance supports it. It is my assessment that the planned visits were intended to serve and empower the NC homeschool by providing the homeschool principal assurance regarding his or her understanding of the requirements of the law and the homeschool's state of compliance.   Following inspection of records, a NC homeschool administrator could say with authority their legal compliance had been verified by state personnel. 

Homeschooling continues to grow in our state, and parents are empowered to enjoy the freedom afforded them under the law. However, the potential for fraudulent activity masquerading as homeschooling also grows. While the true accountability of the educator rests in the future of the student as students must progress in their education to progress in society, the veracity of a NC homeschool's record-keeping activity, according to NC law, resides with DNPE. NCHE encourages NC homeschoolers to study the law, as well as its history, and to consider public officials functioning legally as servant-leaders worthy of respect.   

The credibility of NC homeschoolers is at stake.