Virginia Delegate Tom Rust (R-Herndon) has proposed a study of the state’s religious exemption statute for homeschoolers. To the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), the proposal, HJ 92, is a malicious attack on Christian homeschoolers. The reality, however, is quite different. Rust’s proposal is a reasonable response to a long-standing problem.
First, a brief explanation. In Virginia, families are entitled to homeschool under either an academic or religious exemption. My parents homeschooled under an academic exemption, which means that they were required to administer standardized tests to measure my academic progress. Families that homeschool under a religious exemption, however, face no such requirement. After the local school district confirms that their religious convictions are legitimate (and there is no uniform standard for this process), a homeschool family can effectively remove itself from the state’s radar.
In the state of Virginia, a religious family can pull a child out of school at any point in the term and provide no evidence of a curriculum or of the child’s subsequent educational attainment. The children are, in effect, rendered invisible.
My friend Josh Powell used to be one of those invisible children. Last summer, he told his story to the Washington Post in a bid to publicize the consequences of Virginia’s overly generous statute. At 16, Josh didn’t know that South Africa is a country and hadn’t been taught basic algebra. After years of remedial classes, Josh made his way to community college and later, Georgetown University.
Some of his younger siblings would like to attend public school. But because the state privileges the convictions of their parents over their personal goals, they remain at home. And there’s no way to ensure they receive the education Josh was denied.
That is an intolerable situation in a country that claims to value education as a human right.
It is unclear to me how anyone’s religious exercise is threatened by their child’s ability to read and write. Fringe homeschool advocates are fond of insisting that they are the best possible educators for their children and in some cases, that might be true. But this is clearly not going to be true of all parents, and common sense regulation is necessary to make sure their children are receiving an adequate education.
But try telling that to HSLDA. Its latest e-lert warns, “We must accept the possibility that Rust’s call for a study is a mere pretext, and that his true intention is to try to take away some of your freedom once the study gives him some “cover.” At the very least, it’s fair to conclude that he thinks you may have too much freedom right now!”
Now, let’s be clear about what Rust has actually proposed: a study. This means he wants to review the law. If his measure passes, the Department of Education would survey the state’s school districts to examine how they apply the religious exemption statute. It would also examine how districts review their initial decision to grant a family an exemption (if they review at all). The proposal’s final clause also calls for the DOE to determine whether or not districts monitor the educational progress of children in religiously exempt families.
I believe it’s this last clause that so concerns HSLDA. Josh Powell’s family isn’t exactly unique. Although my parents homeschooled under an academic exemption, we knew quite a few families who’d received religious exemptions instead, and to describe their educational attainment as uneven would be somewhat generous. It is certainly true that most families who homeschool do so with the best of intentions. But intentions are not magic. Sometimes parents simply aren’t qualified to be educators. Sometimes they’re even abusive. And right now, there’s no external oversight to make sure this isn’t happening in religiously exempt homeschool families.
That’s a problem.
Though not, of course, to HSLDA. And why? It’s important to note that HSLDA opposes HJ 92 due to extremist religious beliefs. A white paper they’ve produced on the proposal reveals the real motivation for their opposition. “The rights of minors are held in trust and exercised by their parents,” it asserts, and later adds, “A child’s right to an education–just like his right to worship, his right to assemble, etc., is held by his parents as custodian until he attains majority.”
But what happens when parents hold that right hostage?
To HSLDA, children have no rights of their own. Parental rights are paramount. And that explains why they’re so adamantly opposed to government oversight. It’s not necessary to make sure the rights of children are protected if you believe that they don’t really have any. Their white paper cites one study produced in 1994 that claims children in religiously exempt homeschool families score an average of 33 percentile points higher on standardized tests, as compared to peers in more traditional school environments. But it’s worth noting that the study’s author, Dr. Brian Ray, works for a partisan group, the National Home Education Research Institute. And it’s impossible to determine the real academic standards reached by religiously exempt homeschoolers when they aren’t even required to take standardized tests. Ray’s sample is self-selected, and therefore, it’s likely deeply skewed.
But here’s what we do know.
For three homeschooled children, Virginia’s lack of oversight proved deadly. Dominick Diehl, Valerie Smelser, and the unnamed adopted child of Matthew and Amy Sweeney all died of abuse in homeschool households. Abuse is not unique to the homeschool movement, but when laws like Virginia’s religious exemption statute allow families to go completely underground, it becomes much easier to hide abuse until it’s too late.
You won’t find those stories in HSLDA’s e-lerts. Just dogma, and questionable data gleaned from out-of-date studies. Even Josh’s story receives short shrift, dismissed because his hard work and determination earned him a place at an elite university.
Virginia’s children deserve better. That’s why I support HJ 92. I hope you’ll do the same.