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Parents, Private School in Truancy Tug of War

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The age-old tension between the rights of parents and the responsibilities of government has sparked a new battle in the state whose motto is "live free or die."

New Hampshire education officials have said that students who attended the unapproved Merrimack Baptist Temple School last year were truant and that those who return in the fall will be considered truant.

The Rev. Paul Norwalt, who runs the school, has refused to fill out the paperwork required by the state and has said he's under no obligation to seek state approval.

Between the pastor and the state are parents who have decided to send their children to Mr. Norwalt's school and are now threatened with criminal action. According to Nancy Smith, an assistant state attorney general, parents who continue to violate the state's compulsory-attendance laws could be fined.

"That's in the nature of a traffic violation," Ms. Smith said. "We're not talking about jailing parents."

Enforcing the Law

As the school year approaches, the pastor of the Merrimack Baptist Temple School and at least some parents have refused to budge. And although officials in the state education department and the Merrimack public school system agree that truancy laws are being broken, they haven't agreed about who has the primary responsibility to enforce them.

The local and state officials planned to meet early this week in the hope of reaching an agreement.

State officials say the dispute in Merrimack could evaporate if Mr. Norwalt completed an eight-page form to seek state approval. In addition to asking for the school's enrollment, amount of instruction time, and qualifications of instructors, the application asks for descriptions of the school's curriculum and if it has met state health, fire, and safety requirements.

"The approval standards of nonpublic schools have nothing to do with religious or nonreligious content," said Ms. Smith, who reviewed the case for the education department. "We're not regulating religion. We're regulating education."

For Mr. Norwalt, the question isn't whether the state approval process is onerous or not, but whether the state has any authority over his school. He says no.

Under New Hampshire's constitution, he said, citizens may send their children to whichever school they wish. And, he said, because his school is a church school, it is beyond state jurisdiction.

"The school system of the state cannot subordinate my school to theirs," he said in a recent interview. "If I sought approval of our school, I would be placing my school under their jurisdiction."

The Fourth 'R'

Mr. Norwalt founded the school at his Baptist church after he unsuccessfully lobbied the 5,000-student Merrimack school district to teach creationism. The Baptist school's emphasis on Christian teaching is what led Philip Quinn to send his 8th-grade daughter there last year.

"The attraction for me was that it was not only addressing reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also religion," said Mr. Quinn, a pastor at a nearby church in Massachusetts. "It was a fuller education and a more personalized education."

Although Mr. Norwalt has refused to say how many students attend his school, local public school officials have estimated that he may have a half-dozen or more from several grades.

With just a few weeks before the fall semester, it remains unclear what will happen to parents who ignore the state's warnings.

This summer, state Commissioner of Education Elizabeth Twomey sent a letter to the Merrimack superintendent of schools, James O'Neil, recommending that he inform the parents of Mr. Norwalt's students that they have violated state attendance laws.

"This is a tough issue," Mr. O'Neil said. "We're not questioning the education going on in that particular institution."

If parents continue to send their children to the nonapproved school, the local school system should initiate "the appropriate criminal action," the commissioner's letter said.

Who's Responsible?

But district officials said they are upset that the state has handed them such a responsibility.

"The second we would try to intervene in this, they'd say we violated the constitution, and then we'd be in court defending our state constitution," said Ken Coleman, the chairman of the local school board.

But Commissioner Twomey said the district should at least send out letters officially informing the parents of their violation.

"It is not that the state has no responsibility, but I come in after there is a problem on the local level," Ms. Twomey said in an interview. "If they get no response from the parents, then they can go to the state and say 'we tried.'"

State education officials said they were hopeful late last week that they could reach an agreement with local officials at this week's meeting.

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