Virginia's home schoolers were key players in an intense battle to pass a state parental rights bill in January. The Parental Rights Amendment (PRA) was one of the first bills in 1997 to sail through committee and come to the senate floor for a vote.
The Home Education Association of Virginia (HEAV) and other state groups joined Mike Farris in alerting home schoolers across Virginia, urging them to ask their Senators to support the PRA.
During the next few days, the senate was flooded with calls from concerned citizens supporting the PRA. At the same time, the opposition rallied its troops to the fray. The People for the American Way urged its members to oppose this "dangerous" bill. However, the grass roots battle was definitely won by the proponents.
"The right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children is a fundamental right." — The Virginia PRA
In spite of the deluge of pro-PRA phone calls, the Virginia Senate voted to send the PRA back to committee. The next hearing on the bill was set for 7:30 p.m. on January 22—the state-wide annual home school lobbying day.
That evening, Mike Farris spoke at a rally for the PRA and testified before the senate committee hearing in defense of the amendment. Over 700 supporters, mostly home schoolers, attended the events. The committee, in a straight party-line vote, passed the amendment and sent it back to the senate.
To heighten public awareness of the pending PRA vote in the Virginia Senate, HSLDA, HEAV and other organizations sent out press releases, wrote editorials, and gave press interviews. HSLDA commissioned "The Polling Company" to survey Virginia voters. The poll showed that of 301 registered voters across Virginia, 87% supported the PRA, and 68% believed the traditional rights of parents were consistently being undermined.
An amendment to the PRA was drafted to respond to opponents' concerns that the PRA would protect child abusers: "The State maintains a compelling interest in investigating, prosecuting, and punishing child abuse and neglect as defined by statute." HSLDA supported this rider; however, opponents in the Senate did not agree to it.
In spite of remarkable public support for the PRA, the Democrat-controlled Virginia Senate killed the proposed amendment in a 21-19 vote on January 28, 1997. "[The PRA] could paralyze our schools, our social services, and our libraries. We don't want judges to decide what takes place in the classroom," said Senator Charles Waddell (D). Candidate for governor and current Lieutenant Governor Donald Beyer (D) also opposed the PRA.
Attorney General James Gilmore, Republican candidate for governor, countered, "Unfortunately, those who opposed the amendment chose to talk in irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric, rather than listen to the concerns of parents in Virginia."
Senator Bill Bolling (R) summed up the feelings of the PRA supporters when he observed, "Physical abuse constitutes a compelling state interest that would override a fundamental right. Am I the only one here today that knows that? I suspect not."
The fight for parental rights is not easy, but this valiant effort by home schoolers and other concerned citizens lays ground work for winning future parental rights battles.