Following outcry from parents who homeschool their kids, a Virginia school board has temporarily suspended its controversial policy regarding religious exemptions to school-attendance mandates.
The contested policy, adopted in late 2013 by the Goochland County School Board, had required that religiously homeschooled kids 14 and over explain their faith in writing — as well as submit to an in-person hearing on the subject in front of the board. But more than 200 parents and other supporters packed into a school board meeting on January 13th to object to the rule, saying it constituted a “religious litmus test” that “tramples on parental rights” and is a “dangerous abuse of power,” according to video footage of the meeting. In response, the board voted to suspend the policy and adopt a new one — a decision that must be repeated at its next meeting in order to be considered final. But homeschool supporters counted the initial vote as a victory.
“It’s a huge improvement over the former policy,” Scott Woodruff, an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association, tells Yahoo Parenting. “We are very, very gratified.” Woodruff addressed the school board at the meeting, pointing out that its contested policy violated Virginia state law — and also that there was no rational explanation for the targeted age of 14. The newly proposed policy would require students age 5 and over to submit “written letter of proclamation to the School Board setting forth the reasons for the request” and be signed by a parent.
Goochland has a relatively high percentage of homeschooled kids in its district — more than 5 percent, according to the Virginia Department of Education, as compared to a national average of about 3 percent, says Woodruff. Those students, as in the rest of the state (and much of the country, depending on state laws) are a mix of those being homeschooled for parents’ personal or philosophical reasons — which could include anything from objection to Common Core standards to the avoidance of bullies — and for religious reasons.
If the latter, Woodruff explains, there is a “minimal level of red tape,” though the option is only open to those with sincere religious beliefs. If the former, parents must notify the school district as well as submit end-of-year assessments and a bit of paperwork, “and sometimes people get hassled.”
But at Goochland, the board “fully supports a parent’s right to choose freely among all the options of educating their child or children,” announced chairperson John Lumpkins at the Jan. 13 meeting. “We fully support a family’s option to be exempted from compulsory education based upon their religious convictions.”
Still, Woodruff says, its adoption of the controversial policy mirrors what he sees as a national trend “for schools to adopt policies that are unnecessarily restrictive.” He notes that there have been a few similar situations elsewhere in Virginia recently. In Connecticut, meanwhile, some have charged the state has purposefully distributed misleading memos about homeschool guidelines. And in Florida, a judge ordered three children out of homeschooling and into public school as part of their mom’s visitation dispute in 2013. Years ago, a judge’s ruling in Los Angeles threatened parents’ right to homeschool throughout the state of California, though the ruling was soon reversed.
In cases regarding prohibitive school policies, Woodruff usually chalks it up to school boards receiving “questionable legal guidance” from those unfamiliar with the specifics of homeschool laws, which vary widely by state. But Goochland’s contested policy, he says, was particularly “extraordinary,” because it sought to have adolescents prove their religious convictions. “At that age, some kids are amazingly mature,” he says, “but some are just kids still.”