LINCOLN — Nebraska home-school families turned out in force Tuesday to denounce new rules that they described as “tyranny” and “government interference” in religion.
Speakers at a public hearing said the proposed rules go beyond state law and would impose unnecessary and onerous deadlines and paperwork.
More than 200 people filled a room in Lincoln and satellite sites in Grand Island and Scottsbluff for the hearing.
“We have a God-given right and responsibility to educate our children our way,” said Kirby Wilson, a home-school parent from Kearney.
But Russ Inbody, a state education official, said the proposed rules were not intended to create more burdens on home-schoolers.
Rather, they were aimed at clarifying the status of home-school students, so local school officials and law enforcement know they are not violating Nebraska's beefed-up truancy laws.
“We're not trying to control anybody,” Inbody said.
The proposed rules were prompted by a truancy case against a Farnam, Neb., couple that went all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Eric Thacker and Gail Morgan-Thacker were convicted of violating Nebraska's compulsory education law in 2011 because they refused to enroll their children in public school while filing paperwork to set up a home school.
The former New Jersey residents planned to start their home-school year in November and file the paperwork 30 days prior, as required under current state rules.
But the public school started Aug. 17, leaving a gap when the children were at home but not listed as being home-schooled.
The state high court ruled in the Thackers' favor at the end of May.
The proposed rules would move up the deadline for parents to file paperwork notifying the state that their children will be taught at home.
Current regulations require parents to file notification 30 days before a home school starts operating and by July 15 each following year.
As proposed, the deadline would move to July 1 for most home-school parents. People moving to the state after that date would have to file when they become Nebraska residents.
People making the decision midyear to start home schooling would have to file “as soon as practicable.” Those parents could not pull their children out of public or private school before getting state acknowledgment of their home-school status.
State officials said the changes would give the state more time to process paperwork and notify school districts which children would be home-schooled.
But home-schoolers see the proposed rules as a creep toward more government oversight.
Nebraska has allowed children to be home-schooled or taught in an unapproved private school since 1984. The home-school law was passed following a long battle by Christian groups.
Parents who want to home-school need not get approval from the state but must notify state officials of their plans. About 7,200 Nebraska kids are home-schooled.
But Haley Buell, a senior who has been home-schooled, said the earlier paperwork deadlines would give parents less time to choose the right curriculum for their children.
The filings must include information about the planned program of instruction. Most curriculum fairs take place in May and June.
Buell also objected to the idea that students would have to stay in a public or private school while waiting for state acknowledgment of the home school, which could take up to 30 days.
She pointed to the attack on a Lincoln Pius X High School student as an example of a case where parents may decide to get their child out of a school right away.
David Lostroh, legislative liaison for the Nebraska Christian Home Educators Association, questioned the legality of the proposed regulations.
Nebraska law does not allow for a waiting period when a family decides to start home schooling, he said. Instead, a parent's choice takes effect when the notification is filed.
Lostroh called the proposed rules “an imposition and a distraction on a parent's ability to home-school, and no real benefit.”
Jolene Catlett, speaking from Grand Island, said she doesn't believe any of the changes are needed.
She said the Thacker case has been the only one of its kind and doesn't justify the proposed changes to notification rules for new home-schoolers.
Omaha State Sen. Beau McCoy, a Republican candidate for governor, did not attend the hearing but submitted written testimony opposing the changes.
He said the proposed rules “not only ignore parental control and parental choice, but current law.”
State Board of Education member John Sieler said at a recent meeting that the rule change amounts to “over-regulation.”
He said almost all home-school parents are acting in good faith and noted that 2011 Miss America Teresa Scanlan was home-schooled in Nebraska.
No decision was made on the proposed rules Tuesday. They could undergo some revisions before being presented to the State Board of Education, which will make the final decision.