VaHomeschoolers Legislative Report – January 16, 2012

by Amy Wilson, VaHomeschoolers Director of Government Affairs

A New Virginia General Assembly Session Begins

The Virginia General Assembly opened its 2012 session on Wednesday, January 11, and VaHomeschoolers’ government affairs team has been watching the action very closely. Our team of volunteer legislative monitors has been scouring over every bill that could have relevance to homeschooling and related topics (such as curfews, truancy, driver education, and so on). Our full-time lobbyist, Scott Price, has been meeting with legislators to let them know about our interest in or concerns with their bills and to gather additional information.

Sports (and More) Access

As we expected, Del. Robert Bell (R-Charlottesville) has once again introduced a bill on homeschool sports access. This year, his bill, HB 947, takes a slightly different approach than in the past. Because the General Assembly technically does not have the power to dictate policy changes for the Virginia High School League (VHSL), the private organization that governs Virginia public high school interscholastic sports (as well as other activities, such as forensics, theater, and debate), this year’s bill would prohibit Virginia public schools from becoming members of VHSL (or any similar organization) if bona fide homeschooled students are not eligible to participate in the programs it governs. In other words, if VHSL did not change its eligibility rules to allow homeschooled students to participate, then no Virginia public school could be a VHSL member.

As written now, HB 947 would indirectly mandate the eligibility of homeschooled students in all VHSL-governed programs (not just sports) at their assigned local public high school, as long as those students are being homeschooled under the home instruction statute, have demonstrated adequate evidence of academic progress for at least two years, are amateurs under the age of 19 and comply with the same disciplinary, parental consent, physical examination and award-related rules as public high school students. Schools would be permitted to charge reasonable fees to cover the costs of participation.

Two nearly-identical interscholastic program access bills have been introduced by Del. Randy Minchew (R-Leesburg) and Del. David Ramadan (R-South Riding). These bills (HB 905 and HB 1005, respectively) add a phrase that would allow VHSL to draft additional “eligibility and participation guidelines…to ensure competitive equity.” The academic eligibility of homeschooled students vis-à-vis VHSL’s “Take 5, Pass 5” scholarship rule has been a sticking point in the debates over this issue in the past, so this language could mollify VHSL, or it could create a practical barrier to homeschoolers, depending on what kinds of additional guidelines VHSL might create.

Based on discussions with the sponsors of all three bills, VaHomeschoolers anticipates that they will be folded into a single bill in the House of Delegates. It is unclear at this point whether the language regarding additional eligibility and participation guidelines would be included in that bill. VaHomeschoolers will support homeschool sports access legislation again this year.

Homeschool Expenses Tax Credit

In addition to his homeschool sports access bill, Del. Ramadan has introduced HB 1006, which would give a tax credit of up to $1,000 annually for expenses incurred by homeschooling families to pay for home-instruction related materials, such as textbooks, workbooks and supplies. Expenses related to correspondence and distance-learning courses and programs would also be eligible for the tax credit. Expenses in excess of the $1,000 limit would be eligible for carryover to tax returns in future years. This is an ambitious, pro-homeschooling bill, in that it is aimed specifically at homeschooling families, rather than being a more generic tax credit bill addressing education-related expenses more broadly.

VaHomeschoolers adopts its positions on legislation in accordance with the expressed views of our members, and our most recent survey results indicate that we should take a neutral position on this bill.

Curriculum Description Bills Expected

VaHomeschoolers had a meeting last fall with policymakers at the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). We discussed the confusion experienced by school divisions and homeschooling families alike in interpreting exactly how much detail should be included in the “description of curriculum” required by Virginia’s home instruction statute. We requested that VDOE modify the language in the department’s Home Instruction Handbook to make it clear that a curriculum description need only include a list of academic subjects to be studied in a family’s homeschooling program. Given that mainstream dictionaries all agree that a curriculum is defined as a list of courses or academic subjects, we feel this is the most appropriate level of detail for families to provide in order to comply with the law. (Read our report on this meeting for more detail: VaHomeschoolers Meeting with VDOE.)

Unfortunately, VDOE staff have said they will not be revising the Home Instruction Handbook as requested, and a legislative approach appears to be necessary. Yvonne Bunn, President of the Home Education Association of Virginia (HEAV), contacted VaHomeschoolers after Christmas to discuss the issue, which both statewide homeschooling organizations feel is of great importance to homeschooling families. We agreed on language that both organizations believe will resolve the matter. HEAV has secured patrons for identical bills in both the Senate and the House of Delegates.

At this writing, VaHomeschoolers expects that any day now we will see two matching bills on the curriculum description issue, sponsored by Del. Brenda Pogge (R-Williamsburg) and Sen. Dick Black (R-Leesburg). While we have not yet seen the exact language of the legislation, what we expect is an approach that proposes adding a phrase to the home instruction statute that will clarify that the description of curriculum is to be limited to a list of subjects included in the homeschooling program. VaHomeschoolers will be closely involved in the progress of these bills, and will work with HEAV to ensure that Virginia families’ homeschooling freedoms are protected and clarified. We will keep our members updated every step of the way.

Driver Licensing

HB 560 would add language to the Code of Virginia to prohibit people ages 19 to 21 from obtaining a driver’s license unless they can show evidence of high school graduation or have earned a general equivalency diploma (GED). This language could inadvertently affect homeschool graduates in that age range. VaHomeschoolers spoke with the staff of Del. Daniel Marshall (R-Danville), the sponsor of the bill, to explain our concerns and express our opposition to the bill in its existing form. We presented alternative language for the bill that would make it clear that homeschool graduates were indeed eligible for driver licensing. Del. Marshall told VaHomeschoolers that he has decided to withdraw the bill in its entirety. VaHomeschoolers will continue to monitor HB 560 to ensure that it is withdrawn or revised.

Homestead Exemption for Homeschooling Materials

VaHomeschoolers was pleased to note that Sen. Chap Peterson (D-Fairfax) remembered Virginia’s homeschooling families in SB 166. This bill addresses a number of details related to bankruptcy, and expands the list of personal property items that are exempt from claim by creditors. Sen. Peterson added educational materials used in homeschooling to the list of exempt personal property. We will be stopping by Sen. Peterson’s office to thank him, and will watch the progress of this bill.

To Learn More or Take Action

Persons wishing to express an opinion on legislation should contact their own delegate or senator as appropriate. For complete text of any bills, see “Legislative Information” on the General Assembly’s web page. Please contact Amy Wilson, VaHomeschoolers Director of Government Affairs for more information.

The General Assembly’s Constituent Viewpoint office provides a toll-free, intrastate telephone message center (during session) to take calls from citizens of the Commonwealth wishing to express an opinion on legislation. Callers will be asked to provide their name, address, and the issue on which they are expressing their opinion. The message will be transmitted to the constituent’s appropriate legislators. If a caller seeks additional information concerning legislation or wishes to speak directly with a legislator, the operator will provide the telephone number. The hours of operation are from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. The number for the toll-free opinion line is (800) 889-0229. Callers in the Richmond area may dial 698-1990.

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