Pod people: A little GetEducation for GetReligion

In the 1990s, before I became a religion writer, I covered education for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City’s daily newspaper. I wrote numerous stories on the school choice movement, from vouchers to magnet schools to charter schools.

In 1999, I won a two-month travel fellowship from the Education Writers Association to investigate school choice in Oklahoma City and other cities nationally. I teamed with The Oklahoman’s database editor Griff Palmer, now with The New York Times, on that project, which won a Dallas Press Club Katie Award for best series in the Southwest’s major metro dailies. I also reported on the findings at EWA’s national convention in Atlanta in 2000.

I bring up my (ancient) education reporting background because of my recent post titled “WPost: Virginia law highlights stupidity of home-schooling.” In that post, I characterized as “lousy journalism” the Post’s 2,500-word report on a Virginia religious exemption that allows families to opt entirely out of public education.

I opined:

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.

My post sparked some interesting discussion, some of it predictable — such as a home-schooling opponent who entirely missed the point — but some of it thoughtful.

I appreciated this comment from regular GetReligion reader Ray Ingles:

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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):

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