A Franklin County couple has filed a complaint against the local school board challenging its authority to ask for documents beyond what the state requires of families that wish to home-school their children.
Kirk and Kristen Sosebee, represented by an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association, filed the complaint for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief in Franklin County Circuit Court in May. It argues that a policy adopted by the Franklin County School Board “alters state law by adding to the requirements of the home instruction statute.”
The Code of Virginia requires that parents who intend to home-school their children notify the division superintendent each year by Aug. 15. They must also provide a description of the curriculum and evidence of having met one of four criteria for providing home instruction.
Franklin County’s policy on home schooling essentially echoes the state’s with one notable exception: it requires parents submit a copy of a student’s birth certificate and proof of residency if he or she was not previously enrolled in the district’s schools.
The Franklin County School Board voted to make this addition to its policy July 10, 2017, according to court documents.
In the 2017-18 school year, there were 548 home-schooled students in Franklin County, according to data collected by the Virginia Department of Education. That number, the highest among localities in the Roanoke and New River valleys, has grown significantly in the last decade, even as the school district’s enrollment has declined. In the 2007-08 school year, 278 students were home-schooled in Franklin County.
The Sosebees first clashed with the school district over its policy last year, though according to court documents Franklin County officials ultimately declined to enforce the policy because the notice of the couple’s intent to home school was filed prior to the adoption of the birth certificate and residency requirements.
But they advised the Sosebees the family would be expected to comply in the 2018-19 school year. The complaint also states that the school board’s counsel told the family “if they do not supply a birth certificate and proof of residency, they ‘will be subject to Compulsory Attendance where Court intervention may be warranted.’”
Peter Kamakawiwoole Jr., with the Home School Legal Defense Association, is representing the Sosebees. The family is among the association’s approximately 80,000 members, the attorney said.
Kamakawiwoole argues it is the Virginia General Assembly, not a local school board, that is tasked with setting the requirements for home schooling. In its statute, he notes, the state did not deem the submission of birth certificates and proof of residency necessary.
“Our position is that the school board can’t act unilaterally to make it more difficult for families to home-school than what the General Assembly has said,” the attorney said.
Kamakawiwoole points to a statute in the Code of Virginia that gives school boards the ability to “adopt bylaws and regulations, not inconsistent with the state statutes and regulations of the Board of Education.” He contends the school board has exceeded its authority in creating the policy, placing additional restrictions on a parent’s right to home-school their child.
He said the family objects to submitting the additional documentation for practical reasons, like privacy, and also legal and philosophical ones.
“We’re hopeful this will resolve it moving forward for both them and all the other families in Franklin County,” Kamakawiwoole said.
Kirk Sosebee declined to comment, deferring to the couple’s lawyer as the matter is ongoing.
The school board has filed a demurrer with the court, objecting to the complaint. It argues that state code does not prohibit local school boards from seeking these documents and that it is within the board’s authority to create such a policy. It also states that the Sosebees have “failed to state how they will be damaged” by sharing the information.
Superintendent Mark Church reiterated the district’s belief that it has the authority to ask for proof of residence and a copy of a child’s birth certificate.
“We require that of all of our students,” Church said. “It’s just prudent to ask it of anyone else.”
Church said the district is not telling families how to home-school their children or imposing restrictions; they are simply asking for information. As long as policies and procedures are followed, he said, school officials are satisfied.
Robin Mays, a Franklin County parent who home-schools, takes issue with the policy for two reasons. The first is privacy; she said even children have to worry about their identities being stolen. The second is what she described as “Franklin County overstepping what the law has said is required of home-schoolers.”
Mays said she does not feel a legal battle is a good use of taxpayer money.
“I definitely don’t understand why we’re spending money involving lawyers and the court system and things like that when that same money could be spent helping kids,” she said.
Valarie Angle previously home-schooled a child in Franklin County, but now lives in Roanoke. Angle performs home-school evaluations, as a licensed teacher.
Angle said she worries families feel intimidated by the additional requirements in Franklin County’s home instruction policy, and that it does nothing to foster good relations.
“I want to feel that we as an education community are banding together and supporting one another,” she said, “not trying to divide and isolate home-school families or make them feel as if they’re second best or isolated or not as good.”