Loudoun County School Board

Members of the Loudoun County School Board

The Loudoun County School Board moved Tuesday to send a legislative action item regarding religious exemptions for home school students back to the Legislative and Policy Committee.

The board had approved its legislative program — a packet of legislative and lobbying requests for Loudoun’s representatives in the General Assembly — during its Nov. 13 meeting.

The program included an item to change Virginia code to require parents homeschooling their students — including those under a religious exemption — to show their kids are getting some sort of education.

However, because of what the board called misinformation in the public and unclear wording in the action item, some in the local homeschool community were concerned. The School Board revisited the item during new business at the end of its Tuesday meeting and voted to send the item back to committee to clarify the position.

The Legislative and Policy Committee will discuss the item at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 4 meeting at the LCPS Administration building in Ashburn. Board Vice Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling District), who chairs the committee, invited all board members to join in the discussion, as well as members of the public.

More than half of the 40 local residents who addressed the board during public comment asked members to reconsider the legislative position on religious exemption.

Some cited their children’s academic success from being homeschooled, some asked the board not to take religious freedoms away, others said the School Board was trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist and several criticized the board for moving forward with the legislative item without speaking to the homeschooling community.

Eric Hornberger (Ashburn District) said the intent of the legislative item — despite what emails and social media posts circulating online said — was never to get rid of religious exemption, which allows for students to not attend public school for religious reasons.

Unlike with home instruction, religious exemption does not require parents submit proof of academic progress, though parents can and do still provide instruction to their children under religious exemption. The intent behind the board’s legislative action item is for parents to show instruction is still taking place.

Debbie Rose (Algonkian District) said she appreciated Hornberger’s work in creating the legislative item, and she agreed there was a disconnect between the religious exemption statute and the Virginia Constitution that provides all children with a right to an education.

But given the community’s concern, Rose said the board should consider removing the modification of religious exemption item from the legislative program to allow for more stakeholder involvement.

“I understood what the goal was with what we were trying to do, and that’s a good goal. The good goal is to try to make sure that this exemption isn’t being used to not educate students. That’s a good goal, but if we have unintended consequences and we make an entire group of very valuable members of our community concerned about some of their very important core beliefs and how they educate their families, then we should take a pause on this one,” Rose said.

School Board Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles District) made a substitute motion to remove the item and send it back to the Legislative and Policy Committee. Sheridan said given the committee’s past rigorous conversations on the topic and the committee’s unanimous support, she suggested dividing the question into two votes — one vote to remove the item from the legislative program, and another vote to send it back to committee.

Sheridan said if the item is sent back to committee the committee can clarify the language in time to present the item to Loudoun’s delegation at the legislative breakfast Dec. 7.

“Maybe we’re wrong, maybe there isn’t an issue, maybe there’s just a tweaking of something so there’s clarity. But not having the discussion just shuts it down and doesn’t serve the students we’re trying to serve here as School Board members,” Sheridan said.

Beth Huck (At-Large) said she agreed that at a minimum the item should go back to committee to make sure there are no unintended consequences to legislators petitioning for change to how religious exemption is run in Virginia.

Hornberger said when he spoke with concerned constituents, those who homeschooled their children under religious exemption were providing an education, and therefore modifying the code would mirror what is already happening.

“If you’re going to claim a religious exemption, at least confirm or affirm that you’re going to educate the child. That’s it. That’s really the core of it. The language, which everyone we’ve heard tonight who came or sent emails, they’re people who are doing that. They’re already fulfilling that,” Hornberger said.

He said the legislative action item simply asks legislators to take a look at the policy. He said the intent behind the item is for parents to confirm they will take responsibility for their child’s education, but also give them control over the educational material.

Morse said that while the concern of the board getting rid of religious exemption was completely false, he supported additional wordsmithing because the board’s own language added to the community’s confusion.

He also said that in reading a University of Virginia study of 7,000 students homeschooled under religious exemption, there were no cases of the exemption being abused to not provide an education.

Joy Maloney (Broad Run) said in her research she found one case of a student being denied an education under religious exemption, and he had no legal recourse because of the exemption.

The 2012 study noted Virginia is the only state in the U.S. that doesn’t require an educational alternative for students who receive religious exemptions from compulsory school attendance.

The vote to remove the item from the legislative program failed 4-4 with Sheridan, Maloney, Hornberger and Tom Marshall (Leesburg District) opposing. The vote to send it back to committee passed 7-1, with Marshall opposed.

(3) comments

David Dickinson

So, what is the School Board trying to accomplish? After reading their legislative agenda and this article, it still is not clear what they want to do. Speak plainly, School Board.

I spoke at the meeting and mentioned 3 legislative items that were troublesome (there are more but you only get 1 minute to speak). This homeschooling topic was one of them. I looked it up and there are 24 religious exemption homeschool students in Loudoun and there has never been a single reported problem anywhere.

So, why is the School Board bothering with a topic that is of no consequence to them and for which there is no problem when they have numerous problems they are responsible for in their School District?

MitchT

There are a couple of reasons that LCSB's actions here strike me as disingenuous. First, they know the process to obtain Religious Exemption. You don't just decide to do it and tell no one. You have to provide information to your school board that convinces them that you have bonafide beliefs that your children must receive an education not dictated by the state. The process generally involves a letter outlining these beliefs with supporting references. Also you generally provide some letters of reference, from a pastor and someone else who knows you AND that your beliefs are in fact sincere. The school board can call you in for an interview if they wish. Some boards do. The families that go through this process are not people who are going to then turn around and do nothing to educate their children. And the evidence shows that.

Second, every college, even what we would consider the worst ones, has remedial classes to get the public school students up to speed. Having taught at the college level for four years, I know why. At the same time, elite colleges, including the Ivys and the Service Academies, recruit homeschoolers because of their academic skills and ability to think and study independently. Yet we continually see the education establishment, doing a lousy job on the kids they are responsible for, trying to limit the freedom of homeschoolers.

Remember, the only reason they don't have a flood of families leaving their public schools is because they force people to pay taxes to support a system that in many cases directly opposes their own fundamental values. Those paying the taxes are then left without the resources to provide a better education. We all know that whenever there is a monopoly, whether it be the cable company or government services like the DMV, they can act with impunity and provide bad service without accountability. Instead of providing competition to the public schools, we just dumb down the SAT a little more and inflate the student's grades, then send them off to remedial classes.

If public schools were so great, the establishment that runs them would not be so deathly afraid of competition. If you really want better schools, let the tax money follow the student to whatever school the family wants, and let all education methods compete. That would also save us hundreds of millions of dollars in building new schools.

jke

Cookie jar, hand. Smack and smack!

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