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.