A Cautiously Optimistic Tale

written in March 1996 by A. Janine Taylor (1961-2000)

The Nova Scotia Education Act proclaimed in January, 1996 contains two small, but fundamentally important clauses that affect home education in the province. Nova Scotia can now claim one of the most comfortable legislative environments in the country for home educators. This was a near thing. We were competing for the last spot just a short two months ago!

The story of how Bill #39 became law is a lesson in the hazards and possibilities of working within our British Parliamentary system and the value of a free press. Home educating parents pulled together, hastily learned the lobby-game ropes and effected a dramatic turnaround in the original intentions of the legislation.

When it seems too Good to Be True…

Over a three year period, the Nova Scotia Home Education Association (NSHEA) executive, established a relationship with the Department of Education. The formation of NSHEA, a nonsectarian umbrella organisation, was in response to a 1993 School Board Association sponsored, Department of Education committee on home education.. NSHEA successfully deflected the school boards’ bid for authority and monetary compensation for home educators.

Gail McLean, Director of Inspection Services, was the primary contact at the Department of Education. (Perhaps her experience with Australian outback home education was an asset in negotiations.) For three years policy was in place that was reasonably suitable for most members of the Association. It seemed no great hardship to members to register and send word twice yearly on each child’s progress to the Regional Inspectors. Those home schoolers who disagreed with the policy, refrained from registering as there was no legal requirement.

Unfortunately once the policy position seemed stable, NSHEA members felt free to bicker about personal and religious differences. Many just expected the rewrite of the act to be just setting in stone the policy many of us had been following so casually. Complacency with the status quo led us to neglect our common interests and fall back on the comfortable position of insular conflict avoidance:

“Do we really need NSHEA as a political action group anymore?”
“There are people in the association who do not share my philosophy.”
“We don’t agree with the religious beliefs of other members.”
“NSHEA is too right wing.””NSHEA is too left wing.”
“We have what we want; let’s not rock the boat.”

These were common themes behind membership apathy. We did have a workable policy, so many members retreated, didn’t bother to renew, ignored warnings and newsletter updates from the executive committee and didn’t bother going to the NSHEA general meeting. As one home schooling parent put it, we got a little too smug.

Wake up Call

The presentation in the NS House of Assembly of Bill #39 on November 3rd, 1995 was a splash of icy water on all home educators. The evening before, a department official warned Marion “I don’t think you will be very happy”, but nothing prepared us for this. The comfortable policies which had worked so well were scrapped without warning.

Bill #39 gave school boards complete authority over home educators. If nothing was done, we would all be required to register our children in school and then seek permission and approval from the school board before home schooling. Those who did not “in the opinion of the minister” meet requirements of the act would be required legally to return their child to public school. Additionally, although a section of Bill #39 was entitled “Home Education”, there was nothing in the Act stating that parents even have the right to home educate their child.

The lesson for all Home Educating parents in Nova Scotia finally came through loud and clear: the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Why did this happen?

Because of confidence in what had been mere policy, a few home schoolers had called the Department of Education requesting services through the schools, such as testing, speech therapy, library access and sports teams. The Department interpreted this as home educators begging for access to schools and arbitrarily decided to legislate school board control.

Upon initial inquiry that fateful Friday, I was told by the Department that I would be granted “wonderful opportunities for access to the school system”; yes, that very school system I chose to forsake. The obvious flaw in the logic eluded them. Asking about amendment procedures, I was told to expect “nothing but a few words here and there”.

Since it’s inception in early 1993, NSHEA has always argued to prevent school board authority. Home schoolers around the province had been generally unconcerned or uninformed about the political situation despite warnings in NSHEA newsletters. The Department of Education was unsure of how great a mandate the Association had within the home education community. The lawyers and bureaucrats drafting the bill chose to ignore NSHEA and concerned individuals within the Department, lumping Home Education in with the general cost cutting and decentralisation theme of Bill #39.

Rumours of School Board hidden agendas circulated ,but it was soon apparent that School Boards had bigger fish to fry than home schoolers since Bill #39 drastically redesigned School Board responsibilities and boundaries. School Boards really didn’t want the hassle of monitoring a few home schoolers _ a fact we later emphasized in our media blitz.

Swinging into Action

The next day, Saturday, November 4th the NSHEA executive met with the dual mandate of finalizing the new executive committee for January 1996 and developing a response strategy to the horror that was Bill #39. Jennie Ernst, 1st chair and Marion Homer, 3rd chair, agreed to continue on the political front even after January. But January seemed almost inconsequential since there was still a war to be waged. There were meetings to be arranged, legal procedures to investigate, phone lists to compile, articles to write, and so many calls to make…

The campaign was in full swing by Monday morning.

Jennie was interviewed on CBC radio at 9 am and over the next few hours calls from home educators and supporters poured into the Information Morning Talkback line. An impromptu phone tree developed to get as many home schoolers and their friends speaking up as possible. No home schooler could fail to understand the fundamental flaw and conflict of interest in school board authority. The need for political cohesion became blindingly apparent to many previously inactive NSHEA members. No one could afford to bicker anymore.

Those of us with copies of Bill #39 sent letters to the newspapers and MLA’s. Calling on personal contacts, home educators bombarded media. The provincial government telephone information staff knew something controversial was in the air by 9:30 am because every home schooler was compiling lists of MLA addresses, phone numbers, and debate schedules. One of the most important things home schoolers had going for them was effective mobilisation. Because we were so quick off the mark, our message was not lost amongst the clutter of the School Board Association and Teacher’s Union public relations campaign.

Lobbying

Department of Education Director of Inspection Services, Gail MacLean was taken aback by all the quick, negative feedback on the Home Education Clauses. She reported taking at nearly 40 calls in one day on the issue from a variety of sources. Even so, the second reading of Bill #39 was underway in the House on Tuesday morning. It seemed the Education Minister was determined to shove this Bill through despite protests from the Teachers’ and School boards’ unions, and home educators might be swept along.

Marion Homer and Jennie Ernst, both of whom lived two hours drive from metro, made countless trips to Halifax and Dartmouth that week to meet with Gail McLean and MLAs. A meeting with opposition leader Dr. John Hamm at Province House that Thursday led to an impromptu meeting with the Education Minister, John MacEachern. NSHEA’s opposition to the wording was made clear, strongly but diplomatically. Mr. MacEachern even gave some positive feedback but, a true politician, promised nothing.

The Behind-the-Scenes Game

Meanwhile, those of us behind the scenes were engaged in a crash course in political lobbying techniques. Starting Monday, copies of Bill #39 along with a succinct list of our most critical objections, phone and fax numbers to contact their MLA, the Department of Education and the media, recommended catch phrases, and samples of letters to the editor etc. were sent to every home schooler or sympathetic friend we could find. Each night more and more home schoolers had to have their telephone pried from their ears.

Developing relationships with politicians and bureaucrats, we cajoled information about committee procedures, what media politicians read, how to circumvent secretaries, how to get free copies… It worked well, but it would have been much less panicky had we already had contacts with MLA’s.

We knew from talking to media and sympathetic government members that pressure on MLA’s and the Department of Education had to be kept up or our message would be lost amongst the practised noise of the unions. The Law Amendments Committee would be the next formal battlefield but before that we tried publicity.

Maintaining the Public Eye

Giving information to reporters at the Halifax Herald resulted in timely articles and columns that explained clearly our problems to the general public. The volume of calls to CBC radio after Jennie’s initial interview prompted Information Morning to follow the story closely. CBC called to set up a three-part series on Home Schooling for the following week.

The press coverage turned the tide. In the Legislature, Tory opposition MLA’s quoted Jim Meek’s column and Jennie’s CBC interview as well as statistics from the package NSHEA hastily prepared and distributed to every MLA. The word was out and understood, and those of us with MLA’s in the Liberal government ensured that the issue was also brought up with Mr. MacEachern in the Province House halls. Jennie and Marion were assured privately that NSHEA would be consulted and that major changes were coming.

Information Sharing

Now the challenge was to get the most timely information out to the NSHEA members before the Law Amendments Committee convened so everyone could join the lobby effort. HSLDA was supposed to fax an opinion and provide NSHEA with a cost shared mail out. This didn’t materialize, so the association had to dip into it’s rapidly depleting reservoir of funds to send out an emergency newsletter. With the fear that the Law Amendments Committee could meet Monday once Bill #39 passed second reading, the newsletter was printed, folded, speedily stuffed and stamped and put it in the mail on Friday, November 10th.

That same Friday, just seven days after the Bill was introduced in the Legislature, marked the end of the second reading. Fortunately, Mr. MacEachern decided to present his Departmental amendments at the beginning of the Law Amendments Committee hearings. The Hearings would be delayed until Monday, November 20th. One entire week with no unannounced movement on Bill #39! Needless to say, Jennie and Marion’s sleep deprivation abated slightly although everyone’s personal telephone bills were climbing steadily.

Using the information in the newsletters, more NSHEA members took up the cause and former members started to renew their activity. The Law Amendment Committee list of presenters was littered with home educators. Many more sent written submissions. As Jennie said, after what seemed initially to be a total failure on NSHEA’s part to convince the Department of Education of the voracity of its position the “overwhelming response from all home schoolers was wonderfully reaffirming”.

Consultation and Lawyers

Again, during week two, Jennie and Marion were on the road again. This time, on a more positive note, meeting with Gail McLean and lawyers to consult on wording changes for the Department’s amendments. Of course, Ms. McLean was bogged down with the teachers amendment requests, and these had been backed up by a strike vote over the weekend.

Even so, Marion and Jennie felt assured that at least the worst of the wording would be amended. The fundamental flaw of school board authority and approval was simple to understand and, once the minister intervened, remedied. The statement of our right to home educate and the definition was to be changed, albeit with considerable angst about the best wording.

This still left the “termination clause”. Time pressured government lawyers suggested to NSHEA executive that they might as well leave this issue to be defined in the coming regulations. To two physically exhausted women this seemed reasonable at the time. Then, after yet another night of insomnia, Jennie and Marion couldn’t agree to leave things so vague. A wellspring of public support was there to be tapped. This was our best opportunity to define home education rights in law.

As in any negotiation, there was give and take. The challenge was to get what most home educators could accept, while understanding the Department’s mandate of ensuring an education. As Marion said, it was an emotional roller coaster. Every time an issue seemed settled, another curve was thrown.

During that tumultuous week, the three-part series on home education played on CBC radio, letters to the editor appeared in the metro papers, and warm telephones had to be pried from many home educators’ ears each evening.

The Law Amendment Committee

Monday came. Mr. MacEachern left his amendments with Bill Gillis, the Law Amendments Committee Chairman, and called an immediate news conference while the Law Amendments Committee met. This caused a media field day for the strike-mandated teachers who stomped out of the televised hearings in protest. Fortunately, that left a quiet and reasonable atmosphere in the Red Room for my own presentation. One of our worst wording expectations _ that termination could be determined by “the best interests of the child” _ didn’t show up in the Departmental amendments. With that relief, most home educators could now concentrate on specific fine tuning in their upcoming presentations.

Jennie and Marion changed their NSHEA presentation date from November 21st to November 28th to give themselves time to regain their health and better evaluate the amendments proposed by Mr. MacEachern. In the meantime, presentations were made by individual home educators around the province in person, by mail and fax.

Back in the early days of this bill Mr MacEachern’s secretary had granted NSHEA a meeting at 8 am on November 28th. Rather than cancel, Jennie and Marion planned a marathon day in Metro; a two hour drive to Halifax for 8 am meeting and a 2 pm presentation to Law Amendments Committee.

The meeting with MacEachern was very productive and helped clarify what NSHEA would present in regards to the termination process. Between the meeting and the presentation that afternoon, Jennie _ still suffering pneumonia on top of her seventh pregnancy _ came to our home for a “rest”. Marion and Jennie then played out the age-old deadline pressure dance. Their presentation was partly rewritten, practised, redesigned and printed. It became obvious that a rest was not in the cards. Working on little more than adrenaline, they set off to Province House.

The Law Amendments Committee hearing turned into an impromptu civics field trip for some home schooling families. Marion and Jennie gave an articulate and well received presentation on behalf of the NSHEA membership. They were very effective in explaining problems, including the need for due process in the termination procedure and committee members seemed very attentive. Even the most vocal opponent on the committee, Bruce Holland, elected to talk with Jennie and others after the presentation to clarify his points of contention. With cautious optimism, we all tried to trust the system to work.

The Committee’s Amendments

The Law Amendments Committee held court for the remainder of the week and December 3rd published their amendments. Home educators got practically everything we could reasonably expect. The termination procedure seemed quite fair, requiring proof that the child’s needs would be better served by the public school system in addition to the other criteria.

Tiny, specific changes, like the definition of home education and the insertion of a word in clause 129 were dealt with in the Committee of the Whole House (CWH). Watching the Parliamentary Channel became my new hobby until the bill passed that crucial phase. After the CHW, further amendments are much more difficult to bring forth during third reading. When it passed that stage, we knew that Christmas could finally come to our homes.

Lessons to Learn

To any group of home schoolers anticipating a government “revamping” of the education system I hope this tale will be of use. The following points are critical:

  • Organise a central group whose sole purpose is to safeguard the rights of ALL home schoolers and develop a mandate.
  • Recruit two or three diplomatic, articulate individuals, with good family support who would be able to dedicate themselves short term to negotiations, lobbying and hanging around legislative chambers (when they would rather be home with their children)
  • Contact your government representatives, in advance, to gain support for your position.
  • Gather laws from other provinces or states, in advance, so you know what laws you like.
  • Co-ordinate a number of experienced, poised home schoolers for any media interviews.
  • Educate home schoolers on the law making process, what you don’t know CAN hurt you since amendments to a Bill are only possible at certain times.

Satisfaction

The most satisfying thing to come of this near catastrophe was the pulling together of the membership when we needed each other. It had a galvanizing effect on all Nova Scotian home educators. Jennie, who had been feeling rather disenchanted with her own effectiveness when this Bill was presented, was given an incredible boost by the tremendous outpouring of support.

I have to take this opportunity to express heartfelt admiration for the job that Jennie Ernst and Marion Homer have done to negotiate this complete turnaround in the intent of clauses 128 and 129 of the Education Act. November and December of 1995 was an exhausting but satisfying time, and it looks like NSHEA’s work has built a solid base for regulatory negotiation.

Home educators in Nova Scotia should be proud of their efforts. This law is not the total “hands-off” some would like, but its very existence adds a legitimacy to our choice to home school that did not exist under old legislation. The requirements are limited and the government is happy because it ensures that every child is “receiving an education”.

Home Education in Nova Scotia is completely out of the closet and, for now, home schoolers are media darlings. Over the past months NSHEA members have fielded dozens of calls from parents interested in keeping their own children home. If this continues, home education might _ dare I say it _ become a mainstream alternative to public and private schools in Nova Scotia.

Finally, please use this article as it was intended… a caution to those who think that they can blithely ignore the dirty world of politics.

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