Virginia lawmaker seeks to clarify education law on religious exemptions

Virginia’s law that allows families to opt out of public education for religious reasons needs further study, according to a Republican state legislator.

Del. Thomas Rust (R-Fairfax) has proposed a resolution that would direct the commonwealth’s education department to study the religious exemption law and make a recommendation as to whether it should be amended to ensure that all children are getting an adequate education.

The Virginia law, the only one of its kind in the United States, allows students to be excused from school without requiring alternative education or testing, offering a complete release from government oversight. Although Virginia also has a home-school statute, it requires parents who choose to educate their children themselves to document academic progress, a rule similar to those in most other states.

Most parents who opt for home education in Virginia do so under the more restrictive home-school statute, but the religious exemption carries the added emotional element of individual faith. An estimated 7,000 Virginia children do not attend school because they have been exempted for religious reasons.

Many supporters argue that the law protects an essential liberty in a state that has long championed religious freedom, while opponents worry that it leaves open the possibility that thousands of children aren’t getting an education at all.

Rust’s resolution proposes that state officials survey local school boards about how they determine eligibility for an exemption, whether those decisions are reviewed and renewed, and whether the school boards monitor the educational progress of such students.

The Home School Legal Defense Association and Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers urged its members to contact Rust and the House Rules Committee to oppose the resolution.

“The proposed study is a waste of taxpayer resources,” said James Angel, speaking for the Virginia group. “The proposed survey will not gather any additional information useful for decision making by the legislature. It is an effort to reduce religious and educational freedom in Virginia.”

Officials at the legal-defense group did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Both groups have posted arguments against the resolution online, including praise for Virginia’s protection of its residents’ religious freedom. Scott Woodruff, a lawyer, wrote on the legal defense association’s Web site that no study is needed, because the law has worked smoothly for the past 37 years and because the questions Rust raises have simple answers. For example, school boards don’t monitor educational progress of exempted students because the law specifically exempts them from public school.

The Virginia home-schoolers’ site argued that the resolution would encroach on religious families’ First Amendment rights and could erode all home-schoolers’ ability to educate their children according to their own principles.

Rust said he has heard from plenty of opponents, as well as educators and students, who think the religious exemption law could be clarified to make it easier to implement and to ensure children aren’t falling through the cracks. Rust supports the law but wants an unbiased group to examine it so “we can ensure these children are getting an adequate education.”

“That’s a responsibility we have as members of the General Assembly — one of the requirements of our Constitution is to provide a free and equal education to students, so we need to be sure we’re doing that,” Rust said. “Let the study show what it shows. If it shows we’re doing fine, that will be the end of it.”

Rust became aware of the issue after The Washington Post published an article last summer about a student from rural central Virginia who was kept out of school by his parents on a religious exemption. The student, now excelling at Georgetown University, said he worried that his younger siblings and others were not getting an adequate education despite his parents’ earnest efforts. A constituent called Rust, concerned about relatives who she felt were not getting an education at all.

When he looked into the law, Rust said, he was surprised that it was the only one in the country that doesn’t ask families to show they’re providing some kind of alternative schooling and that there seemed to be no consistency in the way school boards implemented the law.

A recent study of school superintendents by the University of Virginia School of Law found confusion about how to comply with the law, a lack of accounting of how many children are affected and that the exemption was often routinely granted.

R. Craig Wood, a Charlottesville lawyer who serves as legal counsel to school boards and for the state’s association of superintendents, said schools officials worry about the law and would welcome a second look that might give them more guidance.

“I think school board members are reluctant to dig too deeply into people’s religious convictions; it feels like something that is very personal and protected,” Wood said. “They also want to make sure they are protecting the children, so that’s where the tension comes. The Virginia statute is too broad and vague to help school board members know how to make a call in these cases.”

The home-school statute has very specific regular curriculum and assessment requirements, Wood said, but “there is no accountability at all for the religious exemption, just zero.”

That’s as it should be, home-school advocates have argued, because they think parents, not the state, should be allowed to define what’s most important for children to learn.

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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