A recent report on Virginia’s Religious Exemption (RE) option by a University of Virginia law professor and his students is making headlines. UVA’s Child Advocacy Clinic on September 11 released the report by Professor Andrew Block, which examines the unique nature of Virginia’s RE and questions whether children under the RE are receiving an education. Various media outlets have picked up the story.
Although it is regrettable that homeschooling organizations were not contacted during the research process, Prof. Block did contact VaHomeschoolers as the report was being released. President Parrish Mort spoke with him and provided insight on the importance of the RE to a population of Virginia families. Government Affairs Director Amy Wilson has also spoken with several reporters about the RE. VaHomeschoolers appreciates Prof. Block’s statement that his report “takes no issue with” the decision by some Virginia parents “to seek educational alternatives to compulsory school attendance based on their firmly held religious beliefs.” We also appreciate the effort that reporters have taken to call us to conduct background research for their articles about the study.
VaHomeschoolers is concerned, however, that the overall tone of both the study and the media coverage about it seems fundamentally distrustful of the motives, decisions and lifestyles of Virginia’s homeschooling parents. In addition, the many public comments that readers have posted on newspaper websites clearly indicate an unfortunate public misunderstanding and distrust of homeschooling families by some who are unfamiliar with homeschooling. As an inclusive homeschooling organization that advocates on behalf of homeschoolers of all religious faiths – and those who practice no religion – we would like to respond.
A Balancing of Rights
At its heart, Professor Block’s report, “7,000 Children and Counting: An Analysis of Religious Exemptions from Compulsory School Attendance in Virginia,” asks what role the government should take in balancing parents’ religious freedom with children’s right to an education. Block points out that Virginia’s Religious Exemption, which is unique in the degree to which it recognizes the religious freedom of parents, is also unique in not calling for specific governmental oversight of the education of children in families using RE. Unlike the other three states (Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota) that recognize a specific religious exemption to compulsory attendance, Virginia does not have any requirement stated in law that parents filing under the RE provide their children with an education, nor does Virginia law require RE claimants to provide the State with any evidence that their children are being educated.
“While this does not necessarily mean that religiously exempted children are not receiving an education, it does mean that Virginia law contemplates and allows for such a possibility,” the report states. (Block et. al. 2012, p. 4)
VaHomeschoolers does not disagree with Prof. Block’s conclusion that it is possible that some small minority of RE claimants could neglect their children’s educations – there are, unfortunately, a small number of parents who do neglect their children, whether they attend school or not. Fortunately, child abuse and neglect are crimes in Virginia, and as a society we take very seriously our responsibility to protect children by enforcing the law, no matter how or where a child is educated.
We are confident, however, based on our interactions with our membership; our annual conference attendees; the hundreds of parents who call our toll-free Helpline and email our Helpdesk; the homeschooling families we meet at Park Days, at classes and on field trips; and our conversations with our own homeschooling friends and neighbors that the vast majority of parents choosing to file under the RE take their children’s educations extremely seriously and dedicate themselves to ensuring the quality of those educations. In other words, while it is possible for families to misuse the freedom afforded by Virginia’s Religious Exemption, VaHomeschoolers see no evidence of this in practice.
There is No Evidence of Misuse of the Religious Exemption
Aside from evidence garnered through direct interaction with families who claim the RE, there is also statistical evidence from the Virginia Department of Education supporting the conclusion that the RE is not being misused. VaHomeschoolers has collected and examined VDOE data about students in grades K-12 for the 12-year period from academic year 2000/01 through 2011/12, and our analysis indicates the following:
- The population of homeschooling students (under the home instruction statute and the RE together) has grown tenfold, compared to the growth of the population of public school students – 71% vs. 7%.
- Homeschooling under the home instruction statute has grown significantly more – about 50% more – than has homeschooling under the RE (growth of 76% vs. 52%).
- Students being homeschooled under the RE represent less than 18% of the total growth in homeschooled children over the twelve-year period.
- The number of students under the RE has not uniformly increased on an annual basis. Numbers actually dropped slightly from 2006/7 to 2007/8 and from 2010/11 to 2011/12. The number of home-instructed students grew over each of those periods.
- The number of RE students in 2011/12 is lower than the number in 2008/9.
These are not the sort of data one would expect if the RE were being misused by families. On the contrary, these data support the conclusion that the homeschooling community respects the special purpose that the RE serves and values preserving this legal avenue for those families who truly need it.
Virginia’s Unique Protection of Religious Freedom
VaHomeschoolers recognizes the important role that the RE plays in protecting the religious freedoms of Virginia families who staunchly believe that their faith and their deity command that parents, not the State or its agents, must direct and oversee all aspects of their children’s educations. As an inclusive homeschooling organization, we are particularly proud that Virginia affords the same religious freedom to those of minority faiths as it does to citizens of recognized or mainstream faiths (which, according to the UVA report, is not the case in Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota, the other three states with specific religious exemption options).
Another concern suggested by the UVA report is that school boards may not be able to adequately implement the RE in practice. Religious faith is, for many people, a highly personal matter. VaHomeschoolers believes it is appropriate that school boards, as agents of the state, limit their role in the RE process to ascertaining that claimants’ objection to their children’s attendance at school is based on bona fide religious beliefs, in accordance with the law. While the law does not specify what process should be used by school boards, it has been our experience that school boards have established effective protocols and policies to accomplish their responsibility under the law, and that the RE process works smoothly in nearly all cases. Any adjustments that may be needed are most appropriately and effectively made at the level of local policy, and through the professional dialogue of school boards with one another through the Virginia School Boards Association.
Trusting Parents to Raise – and Educate – their Children
At the heart of VaHomeschoolers’ mission as a non-profit organization that protects families’ freedom to direct their children’s educations and to support parents making the choice to homeschool, no matter what their religious beliefs might be, is the foundational belief that, as a society, we must respect Virginia’s families and the parents who work to guide them. We recognize that parents, not the Commonwealth of Virginia, the local school board or any other government entity, bear the ultimate responsibility to ensure that children are educated and cared for. As parents ourselves, we know that trust is integral to the exercise of responsibility.
VaHomeschoolers trusts Virginia’s families to educate their children, and we know from experience that the compulsion of the law is not what drives homeschooling families to ensure that their kids are getting the best possible education. Homeschooling parents – including those educating their children under the Religious Exemption — do not make lightly their decision to forego participation in Virginia’s public education system. It is true that Virginia’s Religious Exemption does not state a specific requirement for parents to educate their children, but there is every reason to believe that Virginia’s parents take their educational responsibilities seriously for the benefit of their children.
The UVA Report
“7,000 Children and Counting: An Analysis of Religious Exemptions from Compulsory School Attendance in Virginia,” Block, Andrew et. al.. Child Advocacy Clinic, University of Virginia School of Law. September 2012.
“Thousands of Virginia Children Aren’t Required to Get an Education,” Susan Svrluga. The Washington Post, Sept. 11, 2012.
“UVA Law Clinic Report Raises Questions about Virginia’s Religious Exemptions from School Attendance,” University of Virginia School of Law, Sept. 11, 2012.
“Study: Religious Exemption Doesn’t Require Mandatory Child Education,” Samantha Koon. The Daily Progress (Charlottesville, Virginia), Sept. 11, 2012.
“UVA Study Questions Religious Exemptions from School Attendance.” NBC29.com, Sept. 11, 2012.
“Law Allows Thousands of Virginia Students to Not Attend School.” Newsplex.com, Sept. 11, 2012.
“’Tis True: Virginia Kids Don’t Have to Go to School,” Valerie Strauss. The Answer Sheet blog, Washingtonpost.com, Sept. 11, 2012.
“Defending the Religious Exemption,” Scott Woodruff. HSLDA.com, Sept. 12, 2012.