This is a copy of a speech given by Pam Puniello at the HENRI (Home Educators Network in the Rhode Island) Conference

that Deb Stevenson and Judy Aron attended in Providence, Rhode Island on August 12, 2006. Pam Puniello is a Rhode

Island parent, and we found her words to be compelling enough to be added to the NHELD website. She is a mom who has decided to take action to retain her freedoms. NHELD applauds her words and her actions. She says, "We cannot be

vigilant in protecting our rights if we do not know what they are." She couldn't be more right about that !

The Reluctant Patriots

by Pam Puniello

Hi there. Before I begin, I would like to take just a minute to thank Mary Ryan and her family for putting this wonderful day together.

A few months ago on the HENRI site there was an interesting thread about the regulation of homeschooling families. In one of my replies I wrote:

“My husband and I are tired of lying down and having our rights taken and sometimes trampled. I'm standing up, my voice may shake, I may not always know the right thing to say or the best way to say it. There is every possibility that I may cry. But, people gave their lives for the liberty we take for granted. People should have access to government programs, Government programs should NOT have access to people. ”

So, here I am shaking voice and all. Making this presentation is one of the last things I would choose to do on a Saturday morning. But, I’m here because I firmly believe that taking responsibility for my children’s education and committing myself to my family is an ancient, natural and worthwhile activity that should be enjoyed without government intrusion. I never dreamed that wanting the best for my children could make me automatically suspect in the eyes of anyone! Sadly, I have come to find out the opposite and, like many of you and many who came before us I find myself joining the ranks of the reluctant patriots. People who would rather spend their time on their children instead of battling beaurocracy, but find they cannot do one without the other.

I have never been very politically minded. That is something I must change. I can no longer rely on the freedoms forged by those who came before. The days of quietly homeschooling thinking that we will be left alone are fading away. Our local politics matter more than many of us realize. I would like to share with you the experiences that have led me to spending this lovely Saturday morning with you fine people.

In my ignorance, I was under the false and ridiculous assumption that somehow, my local School Committee did not affect my family. I did not use my votes for the committee wisely at all. The result has impacted my family and others in my district. Two years ago, our SC began revising its homeschooling policy. The initial proposed changes were preposterous—detailed daily time logs, mandated testing, making us wear tee-shirts with scarlet H’s –ok, I made up the shirt, but I think you get the idea. I was fortunate enough to meet and work with a knowledgeable and courageous, seasoned homeschooling mom. We attended the subcommittee meetings, we sent letters. She and I did our utmost to defend the previous policy which was respectful of parental rights and civil liberties.

At the meetings, we were told things like “How do I know you are educating your children at All?” and “Who polices these homeschooling parents?” The Chairwoman of the SC told the Providence Journal; “We are not telling them what to read, we are telling them they have to read”.

Some committee members were even angered when other homeschooling parents in the district called to ask them to vote against the proposed policy. These were elected officials who could not understand why they were being called and told callers that the matter was already decided.

I recall saying to my veteran mom friend “Why does this feel like a personal attack?” She so wisely replied “Pam, they are telling us how to run our families. They are injecting themselves into our private family life to regulate us. You can’t get more personal than that!”

It was a shock to be sure, parents treated as suspected criminals! Nothing could have prepared me for that type of treatment. This was an extremely painful learning curve for me. I am idealistic in the sense that I feel that I am not running a "school" out of my home. I am raising my family. Giving my children the skills they will need to go out into the world doesn't really seem that difficult a concept that needs to be graded, judged and learned in an "age appropriate" time frame. My home is not a "classroom laboratory" so things like reading comprehension, grade levels, and other maladies of institutional learning do not exist there. I receive no tax-payer money to educate my children, and I ask nothing from the government schools. I do not accept the government’s method of raising children as my own. I expect to retain my freedom to the fullest extent enumerated in the US Constitution and our state’s constitution. I also believe that it is our natural instinct as humans to learn and try understand our world. William Butler Yeats wrote; “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”

You may have guessed, that certainly our fires had been lit! My wise friend and I began brainstorming ways to help others avoid such ugliness in other districts. We started writing down our thoughts and compiling articles we felt offered excellent explanations. We weren’t sure what form it would take when we started out. We thought about speaking at homeschooling groups…we thought about starting a somewhat organized “coalition”. We floated the information to other seasoned homeschoolers to get their input.

Even though the response was favorable, we decided to treat it as a grass roots compilation of our opinions because we realized that we cannot speak for all homeschoolers, and we strongly felt that no one group or person should. Today, I would like to share some of our main ideas with the hope that it will kindle many fires in support of parental rights and responsibilities.

One of the first things we noticed was the inherent problem with the nomenclature: HOME SCHOOL. This term implies that there are two separate entities happening within a family, namely, home and school. School appears to be separate from the day to day activity of family life. This separation carries the implication that the “school” portion of the family’s life may be regulated without consequence to the family life portion.

For this reason, we believe this term causes confusion with policy makers and others outside the community. In an effort to affect change in the way “homeschooling” is perceived, we shall refer to homeschooling as Family Home Learning or Learning in a Family Environment.

We see this as a family culture with an interfluent approach to learning—a natural flow--, with the intent to prepare children for life. Learning is woven through and around the daily life of the family. Learning is not a separate activity from living.

Isn’t it sad that people lack so much in imagination that they cannot conceive of education happening any other way other than sitting and doing drills or being forced to absorb information with no apparent relevance. I have to say, that I am continually surprised and disheartened with some of the questions and comments I receive. Most times they are followed by statements like “well, not everyone is like you.” Or “not everyone cares about their kids the way you do.” When did our country turn into one full of sinister parents? Who are these people who are actually trying to keep their children illiterate? Further, where are all of these illiterate homeschoolers who are burdening the state? There must be a lot of them because I keep hearing about them yet, I haven’t met any.

You know things are out of balance when an assistant superintendent addresses a group family home learning parents saying that he or she is “here for the children” and the subcommittee nods in agreement. How is it that an administrator pulling in salary and benefits in excess of $80,000 a year can have a greater vested interest in seeing strangers children succeed more so than the parents of those children? We are motivated out of love and are making daily sacrifices to give our children the best possible foundation with one on one tailored instruction. My husband and I along with the other parents in attendance could not believe our ears.

One of the next issues to receive our attention was accessing government school programs. Being a taxpayer does not entitle anyone to the services of the government run school. It entitles us to use the library and other public venues, but to access services of the public school, money, -- a tuition-- if you will, must be collected on behalf of the student. This funding only becomes available through the enrollment of a student. Families who choose to access government school programs that are funded by taxpayer dollars, state and other federal monies need to know that accountability (in the form of regulation) comes attached to those programs. The RI Department of Education considers these children dually enrolled students. Each district can use their discretion as to the availability of programs and the amount of money collected on a child’s behalf from the local, state, and federal level.

We were initially surprised by these findings, but after examining them, we could see the reasoning. We respect parents’ decisions to do what is in the best interest of their individual children. At the same time, any regulation applied to government funded programs should be assumed only by the individual family and not be applied to those families wanting to retain their liberty to the fullest extent. We realized that we cannot hope to have freedom from government regulation if we are harvesting their fruit.

So what can family home learners and their supporters do? We need to expand our knowledge of the statutes. We cannot be vigilant in protecting our rights if we do not know what they are. It is also imperative that Family Home Learners become the resource in RI for newcomers to this lifestyle. Having newcomers use the local government school as a resource for family-centered learning can be compromising to the rights of the fledgling family and Family Home Learners around the state.

People who choose to educate their children in a family environment are extremely conscientious. This is often to our detriment when dealing with some school districts especially when we have a system in place that regards itself as the only way to educate children. Any other method to be perceived as sound must emulate the government model. Further, administrators themselves often belong to professional organizations that are publicly against learning in a family environment as a viable option for the education of children.

There is actually a really funny contradiction with respect to public school administration if you think about it: it is OK to teach diversity, it can even celebrated, but no one should actually be diverse and if they are, they should be brought back into line as quickly as possible.

The last piece of the puzzle is voter responsibility. Our SC chose to represent the administration instead of their constituency. We can change the temperament in our own back yards by electing those who will stand and protect liberty. Having former administrators, school employees and current administrative employees on the SC needs to stop. This is a conflict of interest. The SC is supposed to be the citizen body that holds the administration accountable to parents who have contracted the government school’s services for their children and to the taxpayers who fund the school. Family home learners and their supporters need to ask those seeking all levels of office what their views are and why.

In closing, I would ask that we keep in mind that parents who choose to educate their children in a family environment have simply taken a greater role in their parenting. Parenting is not something to be regulated by the government. Still, we are continually asked to prove that we will obey the law. We are forced into their model like penguins perched in trees. To my knowledge no other group of citizens in this state is regularly asked to sign forms stating that they will abide by the law. I’m sure our forefathers would agree, that is not liberty.

By being proactive for each other and with each other we can help insure freedom for ourselves, our children, and maybe someday for their children. Family home learners have a level of accountability far beyond pleasing an ill informed school committee or school administrators.

We are accountable to the ones who trust us and who have been entrusted to us. The ones we are trying so desperately to make it on one income for. The ones we haven’t gone out to dinner for so they could have art lessons. The ones we’ve stayed up all night with hoping desperately that their fever would break. And yes, the ones that sometimes have peanut butter all over their faces. We are just families and learning is our way of life.


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