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Is it time for exemption law to be revisited?
Is it time to change the law?

 ABOVE: Jane Woodruff writes essay questions on a white board in the basement classroom of her Purcellville home.
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Date published: 4/18/2006

By MELISSA NIX

VIRGINIA LAW gives any school-age child a unique right: the right not to attend school.

If parents attest that it is against their faith to send their children to school, they can remove them without penalty or oversight. These children are religiously exempt from the state's compulsory attendance law. And unlike with home-schooled children, the state no longer monitors religiously exempt children's academic progress.

Some think the law is working just fine. Others say elected and school officials have abdicated their responsibility to children.

Children--and their education--are caught in the middle.

"To be honest, [school boards] should be reluctant to deny exemption, unless there is something that doesn't fit," said John Whitehead, president and founder of the Rutherford Institute, a conservative civil rights legal organization based in Charlottesville. "It would be crazy if anyone could walk up and say, 'I had a dream last night and Pat Robertson told me I had to remove my children from public school.'"

Whitehead maintains the law gives school boards leeway to deny requests that don't make sense.

"They may get into a lawsuit about it, but if they act prudently and reasonably they can deny it," he said.

But recent trends show that school boards are reticent to challenge requests for religious exemption. Critics say they rubber-stamp them. School officials say they are simply following a vaguely worded law to the best of their abilities.

Keith Rowland, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on home schooling and serves as director of elementary education for Radford schools, does not share Whitehead's comfort level.

"It's a no-win situation for them. If they do [challenge a request], they run the risk of a family taking it to the paper and blasting them," he said.

"School divisions will run from this until someone steps up to the plate and says the law needs to be revisited."

Part of Marceline Rollins Catlett's job used to be approving home-instruction and religious-exemption applications. The assistant superintendent for instruction and personnel at Fredericksburg schools would not discuss any specific case, but spoke in general about process.

"It's really hard for a school division to say [to a family] it's not a bona fide religious belief," Catlett said.


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* Note: Statistics exclusive to the religiously exempt who home-school are not available.

Only 6 percent of home-schoolers are minorities. The public-school population is 32.8 percent minority.

Home-school families: 87.7 percent of mothers stay home to teach and raise their children; 0.05 percent of fathers stay home.

97.3 percent of home-school parents are married, compared with 72 percent of families with school-age children nationwide.

The typical home schooling family is white, religious (mainly Protestant), politically conservative, somewhat more affluent and educated, and a two-parent household.

Home-schooled children in grades K through 12 score, on average, 30 to 37 points higher than public-school students on standardized achievement tests.

Home-schooled minorities scored 38 percent better in reading and 27 percent better in math than their eighth-grade public school counterparts who took Virginia's standardized tests for the 1995-96 school year.

More than 74 percent of home-schooled adults ages 18-24 have taken college-level courses, compared with 46 percent of the general U.S. population.

74 percent of home-schooled adults home-school their children.

Sources: Home School Legal Defense Association studies, Gunnar A. Gustavon, "Selected Characteristics of Home Schools and the Parents who Operate Them" 1981.

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.