Dear Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Zoological Society,
Since I am a homeschool teacher, it's that time of year when I sit down and plan our schedule and also arrange for field trips for my children. To that end, I was looking at your website thinking that a trip to your zoo would be a wonderful destination. For the majority of institutions in and around Chicago, I have simply registered as a school group and away we went, so when I noticed you have a separate page and policy for homeschooled students, I knew it couldn't be good.
To say I was dismayed at reading your policy would be a complete understatement, outraged would be far more accurate. Since your policy was most likely made out of ignorance, I will try to explain how the homeschooling laws in Illinois work and perhaps help you to understand why I had such a strong reaction. First of all, the Illinois school code (article 26 if you would like to look it up yourself) states that a school, either public or private which teaches the branches of education in English, is in compliance with the law. Furthermore, the IL supreme court case, People vs. Levisen, made the judgment that a homeschool in Illinois is to be considered a private school. There is no difference between the two in the eyes of Illinois law.
As homeschoolers, we take the freedoms we have been given very seriously and do not want to lose them. Thus, we are very sensitive to occasions when homeschoolers are given different or more strenuous requirements to prove we are a school, requirements that other schools are not required to meet. Perhaps you did not realize that you were adding to the law when you made the decision to require homeschoolers to prove themselves as such, but that is exactly what you did. I don't know the rationale behind the decision, but I suspect that it was partially monetary. It costs a lot to go to your zoo and you may be afraid that families who are not really homeschooling would try to scam your system and get their children in free. If you had stopped and thought about this, you would have realized that school groups make reservations for field trips during school hours. What are the odds that a family will choose to come to the zoo on an arranged field trip during regular school hours if they are not indeed homeschooling? They seem very low to me.
I don't suppose you meant to alienate me, but you have. Instead of making me want to come and visit your zoo (where the likelihood of me spending money on my 10 children seems quite high), I have the opposite reaction. I don't need to go where I am obviously not wanted and where I am made to feel suspect. Lincoln Park Zoo is closer and cheaper anyway. I'm sure this was not the reaction you want to create toward your facility.
Aside from your adding to the law and feeling the need to personally police homeschoolers, there is another extremely disturbing undertone to your policy and one that I think you would be very wise to correct. You provided a list of homeschooling organizations, membership in which you approve as "proof" of genuine homeschool status. As I look at the list of "approved" groups in which membership would deem us as a genuine and acceptable homeschooler, I notice that all of these organizations, except the option for registering with the state, are Christian organizations. Now, I am actually a Christian, but I know plenty of homeschoolers, some of them very good friends, who are not. What exactly are they supposed to do to prove their status as homeschoolers? You allow them only one option if they care to visit you and that is register with the state. Once again, I must educate you on homeschooling law and point out that we are not required to register with the state and as a rule we avoid it at all costs. It's all part of that preserving-our-freedom-thing. We don't really want the state to have a list of who homeschools and they don't really need it. Even as a Christian, I have my own personal reasons why I do not join any of the groups on your list. There are many other options available to me, either in terms of support or of legal assistance, than those that appear on your 'approved' list. Including such a narrow list of what is actually available to homeschoolers makes you look ignorant at best and bigoted at worst.
I urge you to seriously rethink your homeschooling policy. Most simple would be to put yourselves in compliance with the law and treat us as you would any other private school in Illinois. Until then, I have many other options for field trips in the area and I will happily take my children (and encourage my many homeschooling friends to take theirs) and visit them instead.