Josh Powell, who was home-schooled in southern Virginia, talks with professor Dennis Gilbert before a class at Georgetown University in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

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.

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.”

He’s proud of his son’s accomplishments. Josh Powell eventually found a way to get several years of remedial classes and other courses at a community college.

Now he’s studying at Georgetown University.

“He’s a very amazing young man,” Clarence Powell said. “But home school had a part in that.”

Josh Powell, now 21, wonders how much more he could have accomplished if he hadn’t spent so much time and effort catching up.

“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.

Now he’s trying to get his brothers and sisters into school, to ensure that they don’t have to work as hard as he did to catch up — or get left behind.

“I almost have survivor’s guilt,” he said. He loves his family and stays in close touch with it, but he said he is frustrated. “I feel like I made it out alive and I’m doing okay, but I’m not sure everyone else can because there’s so much that’s gotten so much worse.”

‘A rock and a hard place’

Even before he was married, Clarence Powell thought he’d like to home-school his children someday.

He was struck by two children at his church who were taught at home. They seemed advanced academically, but he was even more impressed by the life skills they were learning.

“The young woman was doing homemaking, sewing, learning to cook, and the boy was doing farming,” able at 13 to raise and sell a bull calf, he said.

Clarence Powell, who is self-employed doing home improvements and repairs, thought that public education had gone too far in excluding religion, a perspective he thinks is important to a well-rounded education. Some of his children said religion was an integral part of their learning, including Bible study. The family worships at a Pentecostal Holiness Church, and development of the children’s characters and morality is important to them.

Josh Powell thrived under his mother’s instruction early on. At 4, he was already reading chapter books. Andrea Powell, a University of Virginia graduate who has managed most of her children’s education over the years, let her husband speak for the family.

As the family grew, Josh Powell said, things deteriorated. He learned from a mishmash of textbooks his parents assembled, with more and more self-instruction because there were so many other children to raise and teach. As subjects got increasingly complex, he had more trouble figuring them out on his own.

He knew he was slipping further behind, especially in math and science. He worried he would never be able to get anything other than a minimum-wage job.

He asked his parents whether he could enroll in school. When they said no, he researched Virginia law. He found that school boards could excuse from compulsory attendance students who, together with their parents, are conscientiously opposed to attendance because of their religious convictions.

“The cases say pretty clearly that you have to consider the views of the kids separate and apart from the views of the parents,” said Andrew Block, director of the Child Advocacy Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law, who thinks the statute is “incredibly problematic.

“It permits the lawful denial of all education for exempt children. And it simultaneously puts school boards in the impossible situation of having to serve as arbiters of parents’ religious beliefs or intruders into the parent-child relationship.” he said. The law “really puts the schools between a rock and a hard place.”

In a survey of Virginia superintendents last year, Block and law students found that school officials were unclear about how to comply with the law, that they rarely consult with the children involved or follow up after an exemption is granted, that they routinely grant the exemptions and that there are widespread problems with accounting.

Last year, for example, Buckingham County listed 10 students as claiming religious exemptions. The year before, it reported one.

The law is completely clear, said Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, who has claimed the exemption for his family. It doesn’t make sense to have the public school system regulate home schools, he said, because he thinks home schools are far more successful.

As to whether there could be children getting an inadequate education, he said: “Well sure, it’s possible. But there are whole public school districts that are slipping through the cracks.”

In the past year, Farris’s group, based in Loudoun County, launched a national push to pass a constitutional amendment and state laws that would declare parental rights as fundamental — similar to the way freedom of speech is protected — putting the burden of proof on the government to document that there’s a problem before it can intervene.

Their campaign was successful in Virginia this spring, when legislators passed a law that says that a parent “has a fundamental right to direct the upbringing, education, and care of the parent’s child.”

Block notes that the Virginia Supreme Court ruled two decades ago that education, too, is a fundamental right for all children.

‘I have a chance’

In 2008, Josh Powell wrote to Buckingham school officials, telling the board that he didn’t share his parents’ religious objections to public school and asking to enroll.

He said the administrator he spoke with was kindly but dismissive.

Crushed, he tried a home-school co-op for a while, then a class to study for a high-school equivalency test. “I figured if I can’t make any headway with my parents, can’t make any headway with the school board, what . . . am I going to do?” he said.

He Googled “financial aid” and applied to Piedmont Virginia Community College. A neighbor gave him a ride, an hour each way every day, until he had earned enough to afford an apartment nearby. It was terrifying, he said, as he was unsure how to behave in a classroom or whether he was going to embarrass himself answering questions. But he was thrilled.

“With the addition of lectures, the structure, the support, the tutoring — things just finally clicked. I remember my first semester sitting in my developmental math class. No one wanted to be there except for me. I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I have a chance to learn!’ ”

That drive and commitment to education came through strongly in Josh Powell’s application essay, said Jill Hartman, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown. Without the tangible evidence of his intelligence and hard work, though — such as his scores from the SAT, which he figured out how to take at 20, his transcript and strong recommendations from his three years at community college — she said it would have been very difficult to evaluate him for admission. There aren’t a lot of students who transfer in from community colleges, but they were convinced by the evidence that he had worked so hard to get an education that once surrounded by the opportunities at Georgetown, he “would absolutely fly here.”

He is doing very well, as she had predicted, despite an unusually heavy course load and a part-time job, earning warm praise from professors.

He still feels like he’s missing some fundamental knowledge, with gaps in science, history and English. “Not having read any of the standard high school literature, people make references I don’t get,” he said.

‘The call to God’

Clarence Powell said: “There was at least a part of the home-school setting that he went through that enabled him to be creative, think bigger and pursue certain things. He may not have had the support and help he may have liked, but he may not have needed it.”

Jennifer Powell, 20, is grateful for her home education. She said she had the freedom to pursue the subjects that interested her, taking marine biology and oceanography instead of standard biology and chemistry, which she thought would have too much math, and learning about seeds and botany by spending time with her father when he was doing landscaping jobs. She took a lot of remedial math at community college, but she noted that many of her classmates who had taken math in public high school had to as well.

“I don’t think accountability to the government would really guarantee a good education,” she said. “If somebody feels the call of God to raise their family in a certain way, they should have the freedom to do that. That’s what America is all about.”

She said Josh Powell helped her and two other siblings, one of whom is working at a drug store and doing photography, with financial aid and encouragement to go to community college. Jennifer Powell is transferring from community college to U-Va. this fall.

Nathan Powell, 17, hopes to go to art school. He was very worried; he knew some of his books this spring were ninth-grade level, but even though he wanted to catch up, he would often find himself just daydreaming or doodling or falling asleep. Some of his siblings play video games most of the day, he said.

But his older brother got him signed up for GED classes and pointed toward community college, so now he’s hopeful. “It’s just my knowledge and education that is lacking, not my brain power,” Nathan said.

Josh Powell has had a lot of conversations with his father about deficiencies at home.

“I agree there needs to be in place accountability,” Clarence Powell said. “I just don’t want to give up the right to home-educate children by allowing the government to have too much control over that process.”

Josh Powell said the oversight in the home-school statute is along the lines of, “‘Can you read? Okay. Can you count? Okay.’ No one can reasonably claim a religious objection to fundamental literacy.”

He said the exemption can be a way to avoid the work required to document progress. “I think it’s a cop-out.”

‘Up to the parents’

Finally, Josh Powell took a further step. After talking with Block, he wrote to the Buckingham County School Board again, telling it that he had siblings who wanted to attend school and that by law, officials must consider their views as well as his parents’.

It said no.

The School Board’s attorney has assured them that they are complying with the law, said Superintendent Cecil Snead.

“I don’t want to make that judgment — I think that’s up to the parents. The law says to excuse from attendance a person who with his parents has an objection,” he said. “I think the intent is ‘with the parents’ blessing.’ ”

If it just said that any person who is opposed shall be excused, he added, “I might not have any children in school at all.”

Clarence Powell said he thinks that as the children age, and as there are fewer at home to educate, things will improve.

“There are some issues, but I don’t think those issues merit abandoning this call, this conviction,” he said. He is proud of his children, including the character development he said their home education has helped instill in them.

Josh Powell worries that he’s running out of options to help his brothers and sisters and others.

“Who knows how many of these families are out there? I don’t think my family is the worst-case scenario,” he said, because he thinks his parents are trying to teach all the children well. “It’s the isolation that allows it to exist. Unless you go to that small-town church, you don’t know these children are out there at all.”