“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.
While some national advocates fight for the right of parents to educate their children at home, Powell thinks children — most urgently, his siblings — should have the right to go to public school, too.
For supporters, Virginia’s religious exemption law ensures an important liberty in a state where Thomas Jefferson made religious freedom one of the defining principles of U.S. democracy.
Opponents also cite Jefferson’s legacy, saying the founding fathers thought education was essential to a successful nation. 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.
At a time when U.S. public education is becoming increasingly uniform, with many states sharing common standards of what children should be learning, Virginia allows for the most personal and individualized of approaches.
“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.”