Mt. Vernon Register-News

August 6, 2013

Skipping school


The Register-News

---- — Here is what is required of parents who receive a religious exemption in Virginia to keep their children out of public school: nothing.

Unlike parents who home-school their children as an educational alternative, families who opt out of public schools for religious reasons don’t have to provide any evidence that they are qualified to give instruction. They don’t have to report what subjects they will teach or, significantly, demonstrate that their children are learning. Virginia’s law frees them from any legal obligation to educate their children. Ever.

Lest you think we are overdramatizing the shortcomings of this misguided law, just talk to Josh Powell. He decided to go public with the story of his troubled schooling because he wants people, in particular state lawmakers with the power to change the law, to know the problems are not hypothetical.

“There were all these things that are part of this common collective of knowledge that 99 percent of people have that I didn’t have,” Mr. Powell, now 21, told The Washington Post’s Susan Svrluga. The gaps in his education prompted his unsuccessful fight to enroll in his local high school. Mr. Powell eventually went to community college and is now a student at Georgetown University, but he thinks he would have been further along if he hadn’t had to spend so much time and energy catching up. In wanting to put “a face on the problem,” Mr. Powell told us he was thinking not just of his brothers and sisters still at home — who, to his mind, are not getting adequate schooling — but also of the nearly 7,000 Virginia children whose parents have received religious exemptions from the state’s compulsory school attendance law.

Virginia is the only state that frees families from any government oversight once a religious exemption is granted. This was highlighted in a report released last September by the University of Virginia School of Law’s Child Advocacy Clinic. The report, while recognizing the need to protect the rights of families to practice their religion and beliefs, pointed out the flaws of a law that subjugates the independent interests of a child in his or her education, also a fundamental right, to the beliefs of the parent. The exemptions are regularly granted by Virginia school officials who dare not ask a lot of questions, don’t consider the pupil’s wishes (as the law specifies) and, once an exemption is in place, rarely check on a student’s progress or welfare. “It appears that the educational fates of a vast majority of exempted students are unknown to anyone but the families themselves,” said the report. It quoted a school administrator who said these students are “out of sight, out of mind.”

That, as Mr. Powell’s story so powerfully demonstrated, is unacceptable. States have an interest and an obligation to see that children get a basic education; that’s why we have compulsory attendance laws. By writing such a broad exemption, Virginia has tipped the scales that balance a parent’s religious freedom with a child’s right to an education. When the Virginia General Assembly returns for its next session, it should right that balance. Like other states, Virginia can accommodate religious concerns while still asking families to adhere to the reasonable reporting requirements of its home instruction laws.