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Is state or family responsible for ensuring child's education?
Does a 1950s law fit Virginia's 21st-century education trends?

 LEFT: The Woodruffs participate in a co-op that brings students from nine families together to study. Studying are (from left) Sarah Woodruff, Asaph Bashioum and Jane Woodruff.
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Date published: 4/16/2006


ON A SUNNY FRIDAY winter morning in Caroline County, 20-month-old Emma Wood lies on a couch, sucking a bottle. Her sister Rachel, 4, colors in the kitchen. Six-year-old Johnny, who is shy, peeks out every now and then from the hallway of his parents' modest home.

The brown felt string of his scapular, a badge of religious devotion worn next to the skin, is just visible under the collar of his yellow T-shirt.

Every morning at 9, Johnny and his mom, Paula, begin his kindergarten lessons.

They study English, math and handwriting using workbooks peppered with Roman Catholic images and Bible parables: Mary, the Divine Queen. Jesus multiplying loaves and fishes. Jesus surrounded by children.

At noon they take a lunch break. Afterward, Paula quizzes Johnny on spelling and Roman Catholic catechism. Once a week, they do science and art projects.

But right now, Johnny is on recess. Forget dodge ball, swing sets and shrieking, gleeful kids playing tag. Johnny's recess takes place at home with his family. He plays with his toys.

Nearly 3,000 children in the Fredericksburg area didn't go to school in 2004-05, most of them being home-schooled. But nearly 700 of them were religiously exempt from attending school. Children like Johnny.

While Johnny is getting an education--maybe even an excellent one--some critics argue the license granted religiously exempt families is too broad.

A vaguely worded law leaves school boards and legislators confused about what they can and should do to ensure a child's education. Few want to make waves in the current political climate. Critics suggest, some children could be falling through the cracks.

Who is ultimately responsible for ensuring children have the educational skills they will need for life: the state or the family? And is the religious exemption provision being properly followed by the school boards who approve it and the families who use it?

Religious exemption primer

First things first. Religious exemption is not home schooling. It is entirely different.

In Virginia, parents are required to educate their children. But it wasn't always so.

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From the Compulsory Attendance Statute (22.1-254):

A school board shall excuse from attendance at school:

1. Any pupil, who together with his parents, by reason of religious training or belief, is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school. For purposes of this subdivision, "bona fide religious training or belief" does not include essentially political, sociological or philosophical views or merely a personal moral code.