A Jefferson County legislator introduced a bill this week that would let parents decide whether to enroll their children in public school without first meeting strict requirements for nonpublic or home school.
Rep. Greg DeVries, R-Jefferson City, presented House Bill 303 Monday to the state House Education Committee, of which he is a member. DeVries told the committee his bill would “restore freedom to families, taking children back from the state and returning them to sole authority of their parents," by eliminating compulsory enrollment and attendance requirements.
DeVries said the bill came about when he examined state home-school laws, finding that “latitude” was given to school districts over home-school families. State law requires nonpublic or home schools to keep track of instruction hours and immunizations, among other things, for pupils to receive an exemption from compulsory enrollment requirements.
“It occurred to me that that’s totally backwards,” DeVries said. “Parents are the authority of their children. The education aspect of the children’s lives should be up to the parents.”
The state definition of “habitual truancy” – missing nine or more unexcused full days or 54 or more partial days within one school year – would be struck if the bill passes. By state law, habitual truancy can result in a student being deemed a “youth in need of intervention” and referred to youth court.
“In what other American societal institutions are citizens compelled by the state to be participants or to be present?” DeVries asked. “Let’s think. Trials, prison and internment camps come immediately to mind. But these are not flattering comparisons.”
DeVries’ bill received more public support than opposition in Monday’s hearing, with approval coming from home-school families in Jefferson and Lewis and Clark counties.
President Eric Feaver of the Montana Federation of Public Employees joined the Montana Association for Gifted and Talented Education in opposition to the bill.
“We have public schools for all God’s children,” said Feaver, active vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and former Helena teacher. “And if it is that parents don’t wish to send their children to those public schools, there’s nothing, nothing in law that prevents them from schooling them at home.”
In committee discussion, Rep. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, asked DeVries if he knew the first public education law in American history. DeVries replied that he did not.
According to the New England Historical Society, the Massachusetts legislature approved the Old Deluder Satan Act in 1647. It required establishment of reading and grammar schools in towns of certain sizes five years after passage of the Massachusetts School Law, which, according to the Society, was never enforced.
“I wanted to point out that coercive support of public education is older than America,” Fuller said when asked what compelled him to ask the question.
DeVries referenced the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, when asked in a September candidate forum about government responsibility in issues facing families with young children, schools and programs that serve young children.
“One generation ago, this nation gave its affirmation to murdering what is now over 60 million unborn children,” DeVries said. “The surviving children are indoctrinated with the view that they are descended from pond scum. … The answer to all these issues resides in the families.”
The Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) “is not taking a position on HB 303 at this time," Spokesman Dylan Klapmeier said Thursday.
House Bill 303’s fiscal note stated OPI’s assumption that the bill’s passage would bring about declining enrollment and increased dropout rates, but also said “the ability to determine a savings to the state or local taxes would lack basis.”
DeVries has another bill related to public schools in the drafting phase, which he calls House Bill 303’s “Siamese twin.” The bill does not have an assigned number, but its short title reads "Provide tax credit for property taxes if no child enrolled in public schools."
DeVries presented another bill, House Bill 302, Thursday in the state House Judiciary Committee. The bill calls for an amendment the state Constitution defining a person as "all members of mankind at any stage of development, beginning at the stage of fertilization or conception...."
The bill calls for "no cause of action" to be taken in cases of unintentional harm to an unborn child.
Maria Kirkpatrick of the Independent Record contributed to this story.