Religious Home-Schooling Parents in Virginia Aren’t Regulated At All, but One District is Trying to Change That

Last year, The Washington Post‘s Susan Svrluga wrote an incredible story about a home-schooled student, Josh Powell, who desperately wanted to attend public school because he knew his parents were not teaching him properly.

It didn’t work. Despite the setback, Josh eventually enrolled in a community college and later got accepted to Georgetown University (based on his strong desire to learn). As for his 11 (not a typo) siblings? They were still stuck at home, doomed to the same fate.

Not all home-schooling is this ideal

I’m not opposed to home-schooling. But one of the reasons Josh was in this position was because Virginia doesn’t regulate parents who home-school their kids. Once you say you want to do it, government officials never check up on your kids to see that they’re really learning anything. There’s absolutely no oversight — the parents don’t have to inform the state what curriculum they’re using or show in any way that their kids are learning anything. And the kids don’t get a say in the decision, either. You hope the kids are in good, well-educated hands, but you never really know.

A couple of weeks ago, I met a representative from Home School Legal Defense Association and raised these concerns: Aren’t you worried that some home-schooling parents don’t know what they’re doing and might deprive their kids of a decent education? Shouldn’t there be at least some regulation to make sure they’re upholding their end of the deal The response I got was similar to the one HSLDA Chairman Michael Farris gave in the article: Yes, that’s a concern, but a lot of public school districts also fail to give students a good education, so why single out these parents?

In other words, it’s a big race to the bottom. (They suck, so why can’t we suck, too?)

I said back to the guy: Some public schools are bad, sure, but (at least in theory) they’re held accountable for it.

He didn’t respond back after that.

I bring all of this up because a Virginia public school district just took a major step toward fixing this problem:

The Botetourt County School Board voted last week to ask the Virginia School Board Association to include in its legislative package a tweak to current law that would require parents and their children to certify annually that they are conscientiously opposed to school attendance.

Look at how simple that is: They’re still not asking parents to specify a curriculum or prove their kids are learning more each year. They just want these parents and their kids to come back every year and say they’re still okay with this home-schooling thing.

Compared to the current practice of doing nothing, this is quite possibly the least the state could do.

But even that simple suggestion is hitting a roadblock:

… an effort by Buckingham County to institute a review earlier this year was met with strong resistance by the Home School Legal Defense Association, [Botetourt County Superintendent Tony Brads] said.

This is the kind of home-schooling mentality that’s despicable, the one that says you’re not accountable to anybody for what your children learn, even if your kids are the very ones being damaged by all of this. If you’re doing a decent job as a home-schooling parent and your kids are fine with it, there’s nothing to worry about. If either of those two things isn’t the case, then at least the state can look into alternatives to help your kids obtain an education.

It’s not federal overreach. It’s not like anyone’s dictating curriculum to Christian parents. Nothing bad would happen to the religious parents who educate their kids well, with their consent. But it would at least put a safety net under the current policy that regulates nothing at home and screws over kids like Josh Powell.

As a public school teacher, there are *so* many things we have to do if an individual student is failing to help that child out. In the coming years, a portion of my own evaluation will be based on how much my students improve in the year I have them in class. And if the school as a whole is failing, the state can take action, including closing the whole place down. Even if you argue that there are students who slip through the cracks, at least those kinds of failsafes are in place at public schools, even if they’re not always applied consistently.

It;s not perfect by any means. But it’s way better than the current system in Virginia that lets religious home-schooling parents do anything they want, even if that means squandering their kids’ chances at getting a proper education.

Incidentally, I asked KellyAnne Kitchin, a Humanist home-schooling parent who used to live in Virginia, how she felt about the district’s proposal and she told me this:

As an atheist homeschooling parent, I have no problem with letting the state know every year that we intend to homeschool again the following year and providing evidence of progress. I think every homeschooling family should do the same.

And, just to offer a counterpoint, I also spoke with Karen Loethen, an atheist home-schooling parent who blogs at My Own Mind. She told me her biggest issue here was with exemptions given to parents on the basis of their religious beliefs. She would prefer that all home-schooling parents be treated equally, with none of them having to report to the government at all.

My own suspicion is that most secular parents who home-school their kids would side with Kitchin. To them, this isn’t about government persecution; it’s about basic accountability.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Scott for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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