Just Whose “Freedom” Is HSLDA Defending?

Call Now to Thwart Attack on Faith-Based Homeschooling” is the title of the most recent HSLDA “elert,” an email calling the organization’s membership to action. With this title, HSLDA begins its call to action with a lie. No one has attacked faith-based homeschooling. No one has called for the curtailing of faith-based homeschooling. Indeed, no one has challenged faith-based homeschooling in the slightest. What is at stake is not faith-based homeschooling, but rather a religious exemption that allows parents to legally opt out of any accountability for their children’s education—and any obligation to actually educate them.

Virginia is the only state in the United States that allows parents to bypass compulsory education laws entirely by claiming a religious objection to school attendance. Parents who claim this objection are not actually legally required to educate their children. Yes, many of these parents educate their children well anyway, but not all do—and they are not required to. I wrote last year about Josh Powell, a young man educationally neglected under the religious exemption law who called for changes to this law in an article in the Washington Post. This month Virginia Delegate Tom Rust has proposed a bill that would have the Virginia Department of Education conduct a study on the state’s religious exemption and propose changes to the law if necessary.

Here is an excerpt from the talking points HSLDA has released for the occasion:

A child’s right to an education—just like his right to worship, his right to assemble, etc., is held by his parents as custodian until he attains majority.

Now maybe it’s just me, but I really think there is a fundamental misunderstanding here. Yes, children need advocates, because they cannot always make decisions on their own, but their rights are not held in trust for them until they reach majority. They have rights even as children. One of those rights is the right to an education. Should parents advocate for and protect and safeguard their children’s rights? Yes. But that is not the same thing as saying children’s rights actually belong to their parents until they turn 18.

It is not unconstitutional for parents to decide how to exercise their minor child’s right to an education.

Yes, parents do get to decide the means of their children’s education. Parents may choose public school, private school, charter school, homeschool, etc. But parents should not get to choose whether or not their children should be educated at all. This is not a question of banning homeschooling. This is a question of accountability to ensure that homeschooling parents are educating their children. Virginia has that accountability—but that accountability is waived for those who obtain a religious exemption.

The question at hand in Virginia is not whether or not parents should be allowed to homeschool. It is about whether or not religious parents should be allowed carte blanche ability to opt out of every form of accountability, out of even the very requirement that they actually educate their children. This is not a question of parental freedom—all parents in Virginia are free to homeschool—but rather of whether or not the children of religious parents have a right to receive an education. 

If this issue concerns you, call Delegate Rust and tell him you support HJ 92. Your message can be simple: “Thank you for proposing HJ 92. I appreciate that you are interested in looking out for homeschooled children’s interest in an education. Please don’t back down.” Delegate Rust’s phone number is (804) 698-1086. You can also email Delegate William Howell, who is the chairman of the House Rules Committee, where HJ 92 is currently located, and ask him to keep the bill alive and moving. His email is delwhowell@house.virginia.gov. Finally, you can call any Virginia representative and voice your support for HJ 92, or call only those on the House Rules Committee.

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With the basics out of the way, I am going to respond to HSLDA’s elert point by point. If you’ve heard all you need to hear and are off to call Delegate Rust, or don’t find this topic interesting in the first place, feel free to stop reading here. You’ve got the gist. I am going to go on because I think HSLDA’s elert is instructive regarding HSLDA’s point of view—it is, not surprisingly, terribly dismissive of very real concerns—and I because feel that it is begging to be refuted.

Dear HSLDA Members and Friends:

For nearly 40 years, faith-based families have been able to homeschool under Virginia’s religious exemption statute with the quiet peace and security of knowing that their right to teach their children that God is the beginning of wisdom in every subject was unquestioned.

Last week, however, Delegate Thomas Rust (R-Fairfax, 86th District) filed a legislative measure (HJ 92) that throws your rights into question and confusion by urging the Virginia General Assembly to ask the Department of Education to “study” the religious exemption statute.

Asking to conduct a study is a back-door way of saying that something should be questioned.

Or, you know, calling for a study can also be a very upfront way of trying to assess whether something is alright or whether change is needed. And if HSLDA is so sure that everything is just fine and dandy as it is, why are they worried about a study? Wouldn’t a study just confirm that?

We must accept the possibility that Rust’s call for a study is a mere pretext, and that his true intention is to try to take away some of your freedom once the study gives him some “cover.” At the very least, it’s fair to conclude that he thinks you may have too much freedom right now!

Or perhaps he is wondering about whether your freedom as homeschool parents is adequately balanced with the freedom of your children. Virginia’s religious exemption law gives all the freedom to the homeschool parents, and none to the homeschooled children. Perhaps that is what Rust is worried about—a lack of freedom, rather than too much freedom?

The real question is whether he understands that his first and most important job is to protect the freedom you now enjoy. Filing this measure shows that Rust understands neither the basic principles of liberty nor the Virginia Constitution.

Believe it or not, children exist too, and state legislatures are called to take their needs into account as well. If one person’s freedom infringes on the freedom of another person, or even curtails that freedom altogether, that may be a problem in need of a fix. Remember what “freedom” it is that HSLDA is defending here—it’s not the freedom to homeschool, which would exist in Virginia whether or not there was a religious exemption clause, but rather the freedom to not be required to educate your children. Is that really a freedom HSLDA wants to be defending?

Last week I asked Rust to withdraw his measure. He has not responded to me. A delegate who homeschooled his own children also personally asked Rust to withdraw the measure. I am optimistic, however, that Rust will listen if he receives a courteous phone call from you and the many other families who homeschool in Virginia.

You are optimistic because that is just what you do time and again. Any time someone stands up for the interests of homeschooled children, you throw a fit and shout them down in a stream of lies, mistruths, and rage. You seem unable to even consider the idea of looking for a solution that meets the interests of both homeschool parents and homeschooled children. Is the idea really so foreign?

Action Requested

This is a time of unusual urgency—a time for all Virginia homeschoolers to stand together in unity for mutual strength. Together, we are a mighty force for freedom. Whether or not you have ever homeschooled under the religious exemption, please:

1. Call Delegate Rust and respectfully ask him to withdraw HJ 92.Your message can be as simple as: “Please withdraw HJ 92. No study is needed. The religious exemption statute is a cornerstone of religious and educational freedom and should not be thrown into question.” Or you can use information below to develop your own personal message. Every phone call is important. We urge husbands and wives to separately call on their own. His phone may become quite busy. Be patient and keep calling until you get through. His phone number is (804) 698-1086.

2. Please send an email to Delegate William Howell, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, which currently has jurisdiction over HJ 92, and urge him in your own words to oppose the measure. The Committee could quickly kill it even if Rust does not withdraw it. His email is delwhowell@house.virginia.gov.

3. Many homeschoolers are unaware of this threat. Please reach out to families who may not be well connected, offer them a copy of this email, and ask them to join ranks with you to help turn the tide.

4. If you live in Del. Rust’s district (Western Fairfax County and part of Eastern Loudoun County) and would like to talk to him face-to-face, please contact me so I can give you a more detailed briefing before you meet with him.

And here is where I would suggest you call or email and say the exact opposite of what HSLDA advises. And, as I said before, feel free to call any Virginia representative about it, even if you live elsewhere, etc.

Background

A study by Dr. Brian Ray showed that students homeschooled under the religious exemption score 33 percentile points higher than others on standardized tests.

Oh look! A Brian Ray study! You know, the kind where Ray asks parents to volunteer their children’s test scores to prove that homeschooling is superior, then analyzes homeschooled children’s test scores using a sample that always turns out to be the children of well educated well to do homeschool parents, compares these scores to the public school average, and then acts like he just proved something. Um, no. Besides, if there is no required testing, the children whose scores exist to submit are children whose parents have already chosen voluntarily to have their children tested—i.e., parents who are by definition putting effort into educating their children rather than educationally neglecting them.

No study is necessary. All five of the questions that HJ 92 proposes can be answered without a study.

The first question is how school boards decide if an exemption should be granted. The simple answer is that they follow the clear requirements of the statute. The statute gives school boards significant latitude in the administrative procedures they want to follow.

The second question is whether the school board ever reviews its decision. Laws already on the books would allow a school board to review its decision if there is evidence that would justify a review.

The third question is whether school boards require an exemption to be renewed. The simple answer is that some do and some don’t.

The fourth question is whether school boards monitor the education of exempted students. The simple answer is no, since they are exempt from all government education mandates.

The fifth question is whether the religious exemption statute should be amended to better carry out the state’s duty under the Virginia Constitution to provide free public education and compulsory attendance. The simple answer is that the religious exemption statute was never intended to implement those duties. It implements a more important part of the Virginia Constitution: Article 1, Section 15, which guarantees the free exercise of religion. And it implements the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as construed in the landmark Wisconsin v. Yoder case.

HSLDA’s case here doesn’t make a lot of sense. The “some do and some don’t” answer to most of these questions is exactly what a study would examine—how many school boards require an exemption to be renewed, and how many do not, for instance. That’s rather the point.

As for the fifth question, the study would include an examination of “how, if at all, § 22.1-254 of the Code of Virginia could be amended to better carry out the requirements of Article VIII, Sections 1 and 3 of the Constitution of Virginia.” In other words, if the religious exemption is getting in the way of effectively carrying out compulsory education, it may be in need of changing. Stating that the religious exemption wasn’t meant to be a way of implementing compulsory education when the Constitution of Virginia mandates compulsory education is rather missing the point of the study.

One homeschool graduate recently criticized the religious exemption statute claiming that because it allowed his parents to homeschool him without government mandates, he had to take remedial classes when he enrolled in community college. This simply does not hold water. Sixty percent of all community college students take at least one remedial or developmental class. And despite the supposedly bad education he got at home, now he attends Georgetown University, one of the nation’s top 25.

Way to misrepresent Josh Powell’s story, HSLDA! But then, it’s not like HSLDA has ever taken kindly to Josh Powell. Remember when their response to Josh’s story was to tell him that if he’d gone to public school his curiosity and desire to learn would have been squelched, while an educationally deprived homeschool upbringing (somehow) maintained his curiosity and love of learning intact? Yeah, I remember that too. It wasn’t pretty.

To be clear, what Josh actually said was that his parents did not educate him, and that there should be some form of accountability to keep what happened to him from happening to others. Josh was driven and very interested in learning. If he had had the resources provided by a public school at his disposal, he would not have had to take remedial college courses—and that is rather the point. If he had attended public school, he would have had the education to go straight to a private or state university, rather than community college. Josh is at Georgetown today in spite of being homeschooled, not because of it. Being homeschooled held him back, and once he was a legal adult and could make his own educational choices, he zoomed ahead.

But Josh’s story is not every educationally neglected child’s story. Josh has a eleven younger siblings, and he worries about them. What are the odds that they will all overcome their parents educational neglect the way Josh has? Probably not high. Still, Josh isn’t anti-homeschooling, not at all. Here’s an excerpt from the Washington Post article:

“I think people should definitely have the freedom to home-school as long as it’s being done well and observed,” he said. “I don’t see any reason for there not to be accountability.”

Most of all, he worries about his siblings: There are 11. One, old enough to be well into middle school, can’t read, Josh Powell said.

It is this powerful story that HSLDA so disingenuously characterizes as a homeschool graduate who had to take remedial college courses shifting the blame for his lack of education off on others. And there’s another common trope here too: that it’s okay if homeschool families without accountability or oversight fail, because some public school fail too. Can we not decide that failure wherever it happens is a problem, and should be addressed? Is this so much to ask?

Between 1976 when the religious exemption statute was enacted and 1984 when the home instruction statute was enacted, religious exemption was the only way to homeschool legally. It’s not likely, but if the home instruction statute were ever repealed, the religious exemption statute would still allow families to homeschool their children if they believe that enrolling their children in public school is against God’s will for them.

Why is this paragraph here except for fear mongering? If it’s unlikely the homeschool law will every be abolished, why use that possibility to frighten homeschool parents into fighting for the religious exemption?

A number of Virginia Amish families stop providing formal education to their children once they finish 8th grade. These families could be in danger of criminal prosecution if the religious exemption statute is threatened. Many other deeply religious families place such an emphasis on separation from the state that they would refuse to file a notice of intent if the religious exemption were not available. They, too, could be in danger of prosecution if the exemption is threatened.

This bit about the Amish is wrong. The Amish get by in states without a religious exemption just fine. I mean, Virginia is the only state with an exemption of this sort, does HSLDA really want to suggest that the Amish can only withdraw their kids after 8th grade in that one state? Really? In actual fact, the Amish are allowed to end education after eighth grade in every state as the result of a Supreme Court decision. Virginia’s law has no impact on them. And besides that, a huge part of why the Amish won their case is that they were preparing their children for productive lives and integration into their own society without the need for high school. It had less to do with not educating their children than with how they were educating their children. All of this makes the case of the Amish very different from what is actually at stake here.

As for the rest of this, do such deeply religious families who place an emphasis on the separation of church and state only exist in Virginia? Again, Virginia is the only state with this sort of exemption. In all other states, even deeply religious families who emphasize the separation of church and state have to comply with the state’s homeschool law, and since I haven’t heard about ongoing widespread prosecutions as a result—and I do keep my ears open—I’m going to have to conclude that this isn’t a problem after all.

The religious exemption statute works so well and with so little controversy that during its 37 years of operation, it has generated only one lawsuit that has come before the Virginia appellate courts.

How exactly do we know the religious exemption has worked so well? And how are we to know now whether it works well, if HSLDA is so very opposed to studying it? And if it works so well, why is HSLDA against studying it?

Thank you for standing with us for freedom!

Whose freedom? Not the children’s.

P.S. We greatly value you and your support—it is a privilege to serve you! If you or someone you know is not a member of HSLDA, will you consider taking a moment today to join or recommend us? Your support enables us to defend individual families threatened by government officials and protect homeschooling freedom for all.

HSLDA never misses an opportunity to fundraise!

And there you have it. HSLDA’s dismissal and twisting of Josh Powell’s story is especially disheartening. Their defense of the educational neglect that forced Josh into remedial classes is especially interesting when contrasted with their constant insistence that homeschooled children outperform other children by wide margins. Apparently it would not matter to HSLDA if these children don’t actually outperform other students. If public schools fail children, it should be a-okay for homeschooling to fail children too—or such is HSLDA’s logic. I think we can ask for better.

For additional perspectives and ways to help, see:

It’s Time To Rethink Virginia’s Homeschool Laws

Virginia: House Joint Resolution No. 92

Change.org: Virginia Legislature Rules Committee: Support Homeschooled Children by Passing House Joint Resolution No. 92

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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