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July 19, 1985


Appeal from District Court, Itasca County, Hon Warren Saetre Hon. James E. Prece Hon William E. Kallar, Judge, Reversed.

Heard, considered and decided by the court en banc.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wahl

Minn. Stat. § 120.10, subd. 2 (1984), which defines "school" in part as one in which the curriculum is taught by teachers whose qualifications are "essentially equivalent" to those of public school teachers, is unconstitutionally vague, under the United States Constitution, amendment XIV and the Minnesota Constitution, art. 1, § 7, for purposes of imposing criminal penalties on persons charged with violating the compulsory school attendance law.


In 1981, Jeanne Newstrom and her husband removed their two children from afternoon classes at public school and began teaching them at home during those hours. Jeanne Newstrom was subsequently charged and convicted, after a jury trial, of violating Minnesota's compulsory school attendance law. Minn. Stat. § 120.12, subd. 3 (1984). A three-judge district court panel affirmed the conviction. We reverse.

Jeanne Newstrom is the mother of two school-age children, Katie and Dawn, both under 9 years of age at the time of the original criminal charge. She and her husband live with their children near Bovey, Minnesota, which is in Coleraine Independent School District No. 316. When the Newstroms removed their children from afternoon classes at public school, they contacted school district superintendent Ronald Maertens and told him of their plans for part-time home schooling. Maertens gave Jeanne Newstrom the textabooks he was required to provide to private schools under Minnesota law and began discussing with her the statutory requirements of a private school. Jeanne Newstrom was the only teacher of the Newstrom Family School.

In August, 1981, Maertens advised Jeanne Newstrom by letter that her school was being denied recognition and that she must send the children full time to the public school. Upon the advice of the Itasca County Attorney, Maertens made further inquiries concerning the Newstrom Family School and Jeanne Newstrom's qualifications as a teacher. On October 8, 1982, Maertens filed a complaint against Jeanne Newstrom, charging her with a misdemeanor for willful noncompliance with section 120.12, subd. 3, the compulsory attendance law, because her home school did not comply with Minn. Stat. § 120.10, subd. 2 (1984) in that she lacked the formal education training required of teachers under that statute. Section 120.10, subd. 2 provides, in part, as follows:

A school, to satisfy the requirements of compulsory attendance, must be one: (1) in which all the common branches are taught in the English language, from textbooks written in the English language, and taught by teachers whose qualifications are essentially equivalent to the minimum standards for public school teachers of the same grades or subjects and (2) which is in session each school year for at least 175 days or their equivalent * * *.

(Emphasis supplied.)

At trial, Maertens testified to the minimum educational training requirements for elementary grade public school teachers in Minnesota as then set forth at 5 MCAR §§ 3.041, 3.0501 (1982). *fn1 The basic requirements were that all candidates for licensure must hold a baccalaureate degree and must have completed a course of study approved by the Minnesota Board of Teaching. 5 MCAR § 3.0501A (1982). It is undisputed that Jeanne Newstrom lacked these requirements. She admitted that she did not have a teaching certificate but contended that her background was essentially equivalent to that of a public school teacher. The State did not claim that Jeanne Newstrom was not a good teacher or that her school was not a school in the usual sense of the word. Rather, the State argued that her lack of formal educational training automatically demonstrated that her qualifications were not essentially equivalent to those required of a public school teacher.

Jeanne Newstrom gave testimony regarding the structure of her school and the nature of its curriculum. She also sought to demonstrate that her children had performed successfully on standardized national tests. The trial court would not admit this evidence. Jeanne Newstrom then described her qualifications: she had completed nearly 2 years of schooling at Hamline University, she is familiar with the textbooks used in public schools and has previously taught from them, she is widely read and has had education and/or experiences which she believes are essentially equivalent to those required of public school teachers. She also offered to produce two witnesses--one a teacher, the other a doctor of education--to testify that her qualifications were essentially equivalent to the minimum standards for public school teachers.

The trial court took the position that Jeanne Newstrom's qualifications were to be determined solely on the basis of her educational training and disallowed evidence bearing upon how she taught, test results which indicated how well she taught, her life experiences as relevant to her educational knowledge, her philosophy of education, her reasons for teaching her children at home, and the effectiveness of her children's home schooling. The court also excluded from evidence an exhibit tending to show the Newstroms' good faith attempts to prove to Maertens that the Newstrom Family School was a bona fide school.

During final argument, Jeanne Newstrom's attorney attempted to argue that experience, knowledge, and performance were relevant to the issue of "essential equivalence." He also sought to argue that Jeanne Newstrom should be acquitted because the teacher requirements in section 120.10, subd. 2, were unclear. In each instance, the trial court sustained objections to this line of argument.

The jury found Jeanne Newstrom guilty and the trial court sentenced her to serve 30 days in jail or to pay a $300 fine and a $30 surcharge. On appeal, the conviction was affirmed by a three-judge ...

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