WPost: Virginia law highlights stupidity of home-schooling

This is the headline that ran on a 2,500-word Washington Post story Sunday:

Student’s home-schooling highlights debate over Va. religious-exemption law

But this headline would have described the Post’s hit piece much more accurately:

Va. religious-exemption law highlights stupidity of home-schooling

This is GetReligion, and generally, I’d focus on how adequately — or not — the newspaper covered the religion angle on this story.

But the basic journalism here is so lousy that I feel I must address that first.

Let’s start at the top:

Josh Powell wanted to go to school so badly that he pleaded with local officials to let him enroll. He didn’t know exactly what students were learning at Buckingham County High School, in rural central Virginia, but he had the sense that he was missing something fundamental.

By the time he was 16, he had never written an essay. He didn’t know South Africa was a country. He couldn’t solve basic algebra problems.

“There were all these things that are part of this common collective of knowledge that 99?percent of people have that I didn’t have,” Powell said.

Powell was taught at home, his parents using a religious exemption that allows families to entirely opt out of public education, a Virginia law that is unlike any other in the country. That means that not only are their children excused from attending school — as those educated under the state’s home-school statute are — but they also are exempt from all government oversight.

School officials don’t ever ask them for transcripts, test scores or proof of education of any kind: Parents have total control.

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.

That opening pretty much sets the tone for the article. The Post takes the absolute worst-case scenario — a family that goes the home-schooling route and apparently flubs it — and uses it as the overarching lens through which to view the issue. That’s unfortunate. And biased. And bad journalism.

Here’s my question: Where’s the other side of the story? Where’s the Virginia home-schooled student who scored 2400 on the SAT? I Googled and found one quickly. This is from a 2007 Richmond Times-Dispatch story on a home-schooling convention (I couldn’t find a direct link but saw this in the LexisNexis database):

Lauren Sturdy, a home-schooled senior from Williamsburg, scored a perfect 2,400 on her SAT.

Home schooling “was tailored to what I could [learn] . . . and what I wanted to study,” she said. “And at the same time, it was fairly traditional as far as course material.”

Sturdy plans to attend Washington and Lee University this year on a full scholarship.

In the Post story, no home-schooling students receive full scholarships. Instead, they inevitably must take remedial education in community college — if they can advance that far at all.

At various places, the story tackles the religion angle, including quoting Josh Powell’s father:

“I think it’s important that parents have a role in instilling in their children a world view that does not exclude God,” said Powell’s father, Clarence Powell. “It’s a sacred honor to be able to home-educate your children and instill in them values in a way that’s consistent with your faith.”

He knows how much is at stake.

“As Josh has pointed out, and I believe he’s 100 percent accurate, a good education is not an option. It’s essential,” Clarence Powell said. “You basically get one opportunity to do it. If you come out on the other side deficient, it’s hard to make up for that. If you’re a loving parent, the last thing you want to do is create a situation where your children are limited or hindered.”

But given how badly this family has screwed up their son’s education, the father really comes across as not the best poster parent for exercising the religious freedom exemption. That’s fine. But if the Post wants to produce actual journalism, it needs to tell the other side of the story, too. That’s my point.

I am blessed to know many exceptional home-schooling families. I’m in the Northeast this week and went to a Baltimore Orioles game last night with a preacher and his home-schooled daughter. His daughter is 16 and so far ahead of public school students that she skipped a grade.

But the Post apparently doesn’t know many exceptional home-schooling families. Instead, the paper seems to knows many stereotypes, evidenced by its “reporting.”

It’s as if the Post found one car wreck and decided to use it as a long-winded expose on why driving is dangerous.

Image via Shutterstock

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=141304249 Sarah Jones

    Color me shocked that a conservative Christian blogger just dismissed Josh’s real struggle to educate himself. Good job ignoring the fact that his younger siblings still can’t read, and for ignoring the difference between Virginia’s religious and academic exemptions for homeschoolers. Spoiler: it’s a big difference.

    The stories emerging from groups like Homeschoolers Anonymous are evidence that our homeschool laws are far too broad and don’t do enough to ensure that American children are receiving an adequate education. Oversight is absolutely necessary and it’s time for the religious right to accept this.

    • erin

      Once they start proper oversight on public education, and the liberal unions begin to accept it, then perhaps this argument could hold weight. But as of now, it just looks like an example of bad homeschooling is being singled out and presented as the norm, and negatively because the parents have a religious context concern.
      I’d love to see a story singling out a single public school teacher or principal whose students were equally failed.

    • Mike Stephan

      Sarah, you did read these parts correct?

      “The Post takes the absolute worst-case scenario — a family that goes the home-schooling route and apparently flubs it…”
      “But given how badly this family has screwed up their son’s education…”
      “It’s as if the Post found one car wreck…”

      It would seem to me that Mr. Ross hardly “dismisses” the failure here. He does not ignore but rather he highlights it, loudly.

      But this case does not make it normative or regular. As the writer and some commentors here have noted, the public education system in the Maryland, DC, Virginia area is hardly an example to follow. I say this as one who has atteded public education in Maryland facilities and state schools my whole academic career until seminary.

      The last thing I want to see is oversight by the government. An institution that, for all its size and effort, really does not provided the quality education needed by and owed to our children. Granted, if you homeschool, you must be diligent in your child’s education. If you are not of a personality type that can plan, prepare, and assist your child in learning, homeschooling may not be for you. Thankfully there are also many groups in addition to and outside the public system that can aid parents.

      Regardless of public, private, or homeschooled teaching, parents MUST be active and involved in their childrens’ education.

    • blestou

      This is a journalism blog. Ross focused on a journalistic failure. ‘Rejection of biased, advocacy journalism’ in favor of truthful, accurate reporting is not ‘conservative’.

    • tmatt

      Sarah:

      No one is saying that this is not a story.

      We are saying that it is a story with two sides. It’s called JOURNALISM

      • RayIngles

        To quote from the article: “They warn that the statute leaves open the possibility that some of the nearly 7,000 children whose parents claim a religious exemption aren’t getting an education at all.” [emphasis added]

        Where’s the accusation that all homeschooling is “stupid”? If the subject were parents teaching their kids to drive, and the law not requiring any standards… would the existence of parent-taught Formula 1 racing champions be particularly relevant?

      • UWIR

        What is the other side? Can you come with any argument for the religious exemption (other than the father’s apparent belief that being exposed to any secular institutions at all is a bad thing)?

    • James Stagg

      Dear Sarah,
      We had extreme “oversight” in the Atlanta Public School System. Is that the type you wish to impose on home-schoolers? Perhaps the WP did not cover the APS scandal…..it was “just” a local news story…….but maybe they should have used it to counter-balance the bias in this article.

  • MollieZHemingway

    I get the Post and I’ve actually kept this paper around all week because all of us found this story hilarious.

    You may have to live here to get the hilarity of the Post scorning a single home school family for sins that happen routinely to thousands of kids in D.C. public schools every day … but I think the D.C. school reputation might extend far enough for the joke to play elsewhere.

    In Colorado where I’m from, where hippies and Christians, liberals and conservatives all home school, this type of story would be laughed out. I think it might take a few more years for the scary stereotypes that haunt the Post on this story to be handled better …

  • GWashingtonIndependent

    In Texas, homeschooling has enjoyed bipartisan support in the TX state legislature & has been embraced by the higher ed establishment, including flagships UT & TX A & M, who actively recruit home school grads. It looks like the elitist media maven the Post failed to do its homework. Homeschooling is increasingly the province of diverse constituencies well beyond the evangelical Christian community. “Secular” & Christian curriculum materials, along w/ home school co-ops (informal private schools) exist in TX & many other places, representing a grassroots educational movement that transmits American culture through the conduit of family life much more successfully – & less expensively – than public or private K-12 education.

    • UWIR

      “Homeschooling is increasingly the province of diverse constituencies well beyond the evangelical Christian community.”

      Yes, but oversight-free homeschooling is an exclusively religious phenomenon. Why does being a religious fundamentalist give you special privilege to disregard basic supervision?

      • CDville

        Wrong. Where is your proof? Supervision is a function of the state, and requirements do vary from state to state. The laws apply to the religious and the secular.

        • A muck

          Did you even bother reading the article? It’s right there:

          Powell was taught at home, his parents using a religious exemption
          that allows families to entirely opt out of public education, a Virginia
          law that is unlike any other in the country. That means that not only
          are their children excused from attending school — as those educated
          under the state’s home-school statute are — but they also are exempt
          from all government oversight.

          School officials don’t ever ask them for transcripts, test scores or proof of education of any kind: Parents have total control.

          Here’s more from http://vahomeschoolers.org/guide/home-instruction/progress/

          Under the Home Instruction Statute, evaluation or testing must be provided for all children who are between the ages of 6 and 18 as of September 30th of the current school year (regardless of grade level).

          The following do not have to provide evidence of progress:

          Children under the age of 6 as of September 30th. For more information regarding kindergarten options, see Kindergarten Options.

          Children older than 18 as of September 30th.

          Children 16 years or older as of September 30th who have graduated and/or taken the GED. For more information about homeschoolers and the GED, see Homeschoolers and the General Educational Development Exam (GED).

          Children whose parents are complying with the Compulsory Attendance Code by using the Approved Tutor Provision. For more information, see All About the Approved Tutor Provision.

          Children who are exempt from the Compulsory Attendance Code due to a Religious Exemption. For more information, see Religious Exemption from Compulsory Schooling.

          You might want to actually check up on the facts before arrogantly declaring that someone is wrong.

  • Darren Blair

    I wonder what would have happened had the paper sought out more home-schooling families – and supporters of home-schooling than just this individual family that appears to be largely outside the norm.

    You see, I consider myself a supporter of home-schooling.

    …but not for the usual “religious” reasons.

    I spent the first semester of kindergarten at a military school (I knew enough to recognize that the teacher was oversimplifying matters in order to make things easier on her), I spent the 3rd & 4th grades at a school wherein far too many of the faculty were not fit for their posts, and I went to high school at a place so violent that it was common to see plywood employed to cover up holes in the walls.

    I would allow any children I might have the option to attend public schooling, but suffice to say that due to my own personal experiences home-schooling is *definitely* on the table if at all possible.

    And also contrary to the usual stereotypes, I’m not a back-water hick, either; I’m an MBA who had a 3.8 / 4.0 GPA upon graduation.

  • wmrharris

    Read the story, and came away confused. The headline promised more than the story. Underneath, this seemed more personality driven, it was the story of Josh, incredibly self-motivated, willing to do anything and doing that, now is enrolled at Georgetown.

    I had begun reading it for the usual fundie snark, but the father actually came across as fairly decent; he certainly was proud of what his son had accomplished. And unless I missed it, there was little in the story about the intra-family tension of how the son had helped the siblings. I bet it was there, but again, per the understanding of headship in the family, the father is the spokesperson.

    As basically a personality piece, the story suffered from missing a perspective from home-schooling representative (wildly, how about some one from Patrick Henry?). So our understanding of the motivations, the acceptance of the trade-offs by the family remains unclear.

    Still, at the end of the day, the story of a young man, brought up to think for himself (thanks Mom! thanks home-schooling!) is one that stays with me. This was not a story of alienation but of triumph.

  • Charles Wingate

    People are reading a lot into the story which I didn’t see there. Maybe most home schoolers do a better job, or maybe not; I don’t think that was the point. The message I took away was that the mess this kid found himself in was, as things went, a perfectly acceptable outcome. The plural of anecdote is not data, but dismissal of this family’s experience because the public schools are supposedly worse (which they most likely aren’t) or out of a belief that his experience is atypical (which didn’t seem to me to be where they were headed) betrays a persistent romanticism here.

  • UWIR

    “Where’s the Virginia home-schooled student who scored 2400 on the SAT?”

    How is that the least bit relevant? Would normal oversight requirements have prevented her from scoring 2400?

    “But if the Post wants to produce actual journalism, it needs to tell the other side of the story, too.”

    There is no other side other story. The religious exemption is stupid. Your nonsense about Lauren is completely irrelevant, unless you can show that her parents received a religious exemption, and she wouldn’t have scored a perfect score without that exemptions.

    This is not a story about home-schooling. This is a story about the religious exemption to homeschooling oversight.

    “In the Post story, no home-schooling students receive full scholarships.”

    How many stories on texting and driving present examples of people texting while driving who don’t have anything bad happen to them? If there were an article without any such examples, would you be bleating about their poor journalism?

    “It’s as if the Post found one car wreck and decided to use it as a long-winded expose on why driving is dangerous.”

    No, it’s as if there were a religious exemption to taking a driving test, and someone who got such an exemption were in a car wreck, and the Post wrote an expose on the exemption, and you attacked them for “poor journalism”.


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