Is Virginia’s Homeschooling Law Too Hands-Off?

Virginia has a unique law on the books that not only allows families to pull their children out of schools entirely, but exempts their education efforts from any government oversight. For families who feel that imparting their religious beliefs on their children is paramount probably welcome the lack of government involvement. However, what happens when the religious instruction comes to the exclusion – and sometimes to the exception – of any education at all?

Susan Svrluga writing in the Washington Post looks at one such case. Josh Powell, whose family took advantage of the Virginia law, taught him a lot about religion, but by the time Josh was 16, that was about all he knew. He didn’t know geography, basic algebra, and had never written an essay.

But he did know he was missing out on a lot of important knowledge. As a matter of fact, he’d been begging both his parents and local education authorities to allow him to enroll in his district public school for several years.

Powell’s family encapsulates the debate over the long-standing law, with his parents earnestly trying to provide an education that reflects their beliefs and their eldest son objecting that without any structure or official guidance, children are getting shortchanged. Their disagreement, at its core, is about what they think is most essential that children learn — and whether government, or families, should define that

Andrew Block, who leads the Child Advocacy Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law, called the law “problematic,” in part because it provides almost no guidance to district officials about how it should be enforced. The law seems to be clear – the wishes of the children should be considered separately from the wishes of the parents. At first glance, that should have covered the situation like Josh’s, whose parents wouldn’t give him permission to enroll in public school.

However, research conducted by the CAC shows that confusion reigns anyway.

In a survey of Virginia superintendents last year, Block and law students found that school officials were unclear about how to comply with the law, that they rarely consult with the children involved or follow up after an exemption is granted, that they routinely grant the exemptions and that there are widespread problems with accounting.

Yet the Home School Legal Defense Association believes that this is a feature of the Virginia law, not a bug. According to its chairman Michael Farris, the public education system and the homeschooling parents shouldn’t interfere with each other – even if that means that some kids are not getting any education at all. Rights of parents should be fundamental, Farris says, on par with civil liberties like free speech and freedom of religion.

Josh’s story has a happy ending, as do the stories of the three of his 11 younger siblings. After taking three years of remedial courses at Piedmont Community College, he was accepted into Georgetown University. However, two of his youngest siblings of middle school age still can’t read.