10.16.2010

Doing the Right Thing

If you know me at all, it's probably hard for you to believe that I used to be quite timid. When I first joined the worship team at my previous church, I "hid" behind my French horn back with the other instrumentalists. When the leader gave me a mic and encouraged me to sing along when there wasn't a horn part, I literally hid behind one of the other vocalists because - though I found great joy in singing - I was afraid to be seen. In the rest of life, I rarely spoke up when I had a divergent opinion or felt hurt - even with loving friends and family members. And I never dreamed of openly challenging any authority figure, even when I knew an action or behavior was wrong.

That all began to change a handful of years ago when several mentors encouraged me to stop "stuffing" my feelings and "find my voice." After much prodding, I slowly and tentatively started taking their advice...and realized it was good counsel when I saw the Lord bless my efforts in various ways. I eventually adopted as one of my favorite quotes a challenge attributed to Maggie Kuhn, an early 20th century Presbyterian lady: "Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind - even if your voice shakes," trying to also remember to speak in love, as Jesus would have me do. And now I've reached the point where - as I told my pastor this summer - I can't shut up!

Fast forward to Thursday of this past week, when I received a letter from my local public school district. I wasn't surprised; I'd recently completed the annual notification form required in my state of all home educators, and the district - though not required by law - always sends a courtesy letter confirming receipt of that information from our state Department of Public Instruction (Rabbit Trail Alert: Isn't it odd that the Department of Public Instruction is responsible for regulating private institutions of learning here?).

I instantly recognized the text of the cover letter, which was the same missive I've received each of the past four years. And - as I've done before - I cringed at the letter's first sentence: "We have received confirmation from the...Department of Public Instruction of the approval of a home-based education program for your child/ren for the 2010-11 school year." (emphasis mine)

This seems like standard vernacular for a form letter such as this and in some states would be perfectly acceptable. The problem is that in my state the law governing home education doesn't grant anyone - not even the DPI - the right to "approve" any family's homeschool. The form we fill out by October 15 each year is simply a notification to the state of our intent to educate our children at home - a way for the powers that be to know we are complying with the compulsory attendance law. The form is not an "application," and we are not required to seek "permission" from anyone. Therefore, "approval" is not necessary and, in fact, the notion of it is contrary to state law.

As I said, I've received the same communication in the past. The vocabulary bothered me every year, but - believing (as I still do) that it was probably an innocent mistake - I simply shook my head and filed it. And I almost did the same this year. But then I literally stopped in my tracks halfway back to my desk and knew I could keep silent no longer.

It is just a matter of semantics - mostly likely written with no ill-intent - but words do matter. In this case, I've always thought it important that the public school district not start to get the idea that someone can "approve" (or disapprove) of a home education program here. And - even more importantly - home educators (especially those new to it) must not begin to mistakenly believe, based on the wording of a letter from the local government schools, that someone has that right over them in this state.

So - because I can't shut up! - I took a deep breath and called right then and there, eventually connecting with the office of the assistant superintendent and speaking directly with the secretary who was responsible for sending out the letters. God gave me an ability to remember the "in love" part of speaking out and so I was very diplomatic - but also quite firm about the fact that the wording was inappropriate. The secretary seemed responsive and then said she's speak with the assistant superintendent. However, I've learned enough about the advocacy game to know to ask for confirmation so I said, "Here's my name and number; please call me back with his decision so I'll know if I have to pursue this further." And I was fully prepared to take it further - alerting "my" HSLDA lawyer of the possibility that same day.

I wrote myself a note to call back on Tuesday if I'd not heard back from them by then - that's another trick of the advocacy trade! But that won't be necessary...because today I received in the mail a revised letter that now reads, "We have received confirmation from the...Department of Public Instruction of your intent to provide a home-based education program for your child/ren for the 2010-11 school year." (emphasis mine) This wording is completely in line with the law!

Not only that, I'm sure it was not a "revision" sent only to appease me. This afternoon, a local friend who'd recently filed her notification confirmed that she, too, received a letter today with the new wording! So...I lobbied for justice - small a matter as it is in the grand scheme of things - and I've been able to make a difference for all the home educators now and into the future in my city!

But here's the thing: I don't take credit. God used friends and mentors to grow me into an advocate. I just obeyed (eventually!). God prompted me to make that call on Thursday. I just obeyed. God went before me and paved the way for a favorable response. How cool is that?

I also think it's important to give due credit to the school district for its responsiveness. They could have gotten "ugly" and dug in their heels, thinking, "Who is this woman to question us?" Or the secretary could have simply ignored me, tossing my contact information into the "circular file" and "forgetting" to speak with her boss. But, instead, they listened. Then they no doubt did some research to confirm my assertion and responded appropriately - and in an exceedingly timely manner to boot.

On Thursday, I publicly (on Facebook) shared my concern about the wording of the letter. So I now I want to publicly thank the assistant superintendent and his staff - and I will be calling them on Monday to thank them directly, too. Because here's another truth about advocacy: It's all fine and good to critique someone or something that is not fair or right - and to be persistent if need be. But that's only half the work. If, on the other hand, I fail exhibit grace and thanks when I've been heard, I am - to paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13 - nothing but a clanging gong of discord. And what's the point of that?

So "props" to the Green Bay Area Public Schools on this matter. You did the right thing, which gives me hope that you'll continue in the future to demonstrate respect for and collegiality with home educators throughout the city.

3 comments:

Robin said...

That's awesome! I love that you've given glory to God! :)

Neecie said...

Tina, thank you for sharing your story! Very awesome and I too love that you have given glory to God!!

Kimberly said...

Good job! I am one who doesn't like to speak out. While I am doing better about it I sure need improvement. Our law is similar in that we, too, file a statement of intent to homeschool with our local school district each year for our children aged 7-16. I remember a few years back when I was educating our older three grown children a new superintendent called me saying that he thought I needed to be monitored. I informed him of the law which at that time I "qualified" to home school my children by taking and exceeding the cut off scores on the National Teacher's Exam. He still didn't believe my. I told him to check it out. He called me later to inform me that I was right. You can be sure I did much praying in the meantime. It is always nice when these things can get resolved nicely.

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