A recent Washington Post article has shed new light on one of the nation’s most controversial education debates: the right of parents to home-school their children versus the right of the government to ensure student progress and parental accountability.
Georgetown University student Josh Powell is working to raise awareness of a Virginia law that grants children an exemption from public school attendance if both they and their parents express religious objections. The law is entirely unique in its lack of parental obligation to start home-schooling or other instruction once the exemption has been granted. There is, in fact, no legal requirement that children be educated at all.
A 2012 report from the University of Virginia School of Law highlights the “unusually permissive” nature of the Virginia school exemptions statute, noting that states with similar provisions for religious exemption require continued home instruction or proof of public school attendance through the eighth grade.
Another aspect of Virginia’s school exemptions law requires that the student must share a religious objection to public school attendance. School superintendents, however, tend to honor parents’ wishes when students petition for public school enrollment. Powell, who attempted to enroll as a high school student in his native Buckingham County in 2008, remembers being “crushed” when the local school board refused him.
Powell and his family aren’t alone. Approximately 7,000 would-be students are subject to the Virginia school exemptions loophole and their numbers appear to be growing.
Unlike the exemptions that Powell and U-Va. are questioning, Virginia’s home-school exemption requires — and enforces — documentation of progress. A possible solution to the current school exemptions loophole could lie in expanding home-schooling requirements to incorporate those claiming exemptions.
The new focus on Virginia’s school exemptions has not gone unnoticed by home-schoolers and exempt families. Powell’s own sister, citing deficiencies in the skills of her public school-educated peers, suggests that “accountability to the government [doesn’t] really guarantee a good education.” If the government isn’t an effective arbiter of school accountability, why should individual families who are legally free of their control have to answer to it?
As it stands, this is a fascinating piece of federalism in action. Virginia is exercising its Tenth Amendment right and governing its educational affairs, and parents who seek the religious exemption are exercising their right to govern their families.