OMAHA -- The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled Friday that parents who homeschool their children are not under a deadline to begin teaching them, as long as the minimum instruction hours for the year are met by June 30.
The case stems from the 2011 convictions of Eric Thacker and his wife, Gail Morgan-Thacker, on misdemeanor counts of violating Nebraska's school truancy laws.
Court records show the Thackers moved to Farnam in western Nebraska with their five children, ages 8 to 16, in March 2011. When the children weren't enrolled in public school within a couple of weeks, a school official contacted the Dawson County attorney.
A sheriff's officer contacted the Thackers in April about their children not being in school and was told they were homeschooled and already had finished the curriculum for their 2010-11 school year. The Thackers were then told they must contact the state Department of Education and file paperwork that summer if they intended to homeschool their children the following school year.
The children did not enroll in public school by the beginning of the 2012-13 school year in mid-August, and the Thackers had not filed paperwork with the state indicating they planned to homeschool their children.
The Thackers said they had expected to move to Kentucky by the end of September. But when Eric Thacker received a promotion that month, the Thackers opted to stay in Nebraska and filed notice that their children would be educated at home.
The Thackers were then charged and convicted of five misdemeanor counts each of violating school truancy laws from Aug. 17, the start of the public school year, through Oct. 4, when the state received notice that the Thackers would homeschool their children. No jail or probation sentence was issued and they were not fined. They were required only to pay court costs of less than $100 each.
The Thackers appealed, and a Dawson County District Court judge reversed the convictions, saying state law requires only that the Thackers had to begin the operation of their homeschool in time to complete the required minimum hours of instruction by June 30, which they showed they could do.
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That led Dawson County prosecutors to appeal, arguing that until a parent obtains the state's recognition of a private homeschool, children must be attending some legally recognized school during the public school calendar year.
But the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled Friday that state law does not make the start of the public school calendar year the default start date for other schools, including homeschools. The law requires only that the minimum hours of instruction -- 1,032 for elementary school and 1,080 for secondary school -- be met by June 30 of each year.
"The state's interpretation could have unintended consequences for private and parochial schools that operate on a different calendar year than their respective public school district," Supreme Court Judge William Connolly wrote for the court.
An attorney for the Thackers, Darren Jones with the Home School Legal Defense Association based in Purcellville, Va., said Friday that his organization became involved in the case when contacted by the Thackers.
"They've homeschooled for years, and they are members of our group," Jones said. "When they ran into trouble in Nebraska, they contacted us."
Jones said he and his group are pleased that Nebraska's high court recognized that "the court can't make up words that don't exist in state law. If the Legislature wanted that language, they would have written it into the law."
Dawson County prosecutors did not return messages Friday seeking comment.
The Thackers' attorneys said the family no longer lives in Nebraska.