January 28, 2004

Religious Exemption Policy: Rocky Start, Good Finish

In the wake of a highly publicized local case of suspected child neglect, on May 7, 2003, the Hanover County School Board revised its religious exemption policy with no notice to the homeschool community. As revised, the policy was the harshest in the state.

When we discovered this, we asked officials to suspend the new policy until there could be negotiations between the school board and homeschoolers. Our request was curtly rejected.

Indignant, homeschool families flooded the school board offices with phone calls. In response, the school board suspended the policy and agreed to meet with homeschoolers.

Homeschoolers who were already on record as having a religious exemption in Hanover County were invited to be in a "focus group" which included several school board members and other officials, to meet and propose revisions to the policy.

During the next several months, the focus group met numerous times. The homeschool representatives also met independently.

After hours of discussion, and hearing presentations from Joe Guarino of Home Educators Association of Virginia and myself, as well as others, the focus group crafted a sensible homeschool policy. It was approved by the full school board on January 14, 2004. The new policy protects the rights of families who have faith-based objections to public school attendance.

The May 2003 policy stipulated that exemptions would expire after one year. The new policy allows the exemption to continue as long as the conditions upon which the exemption is based continue. This mirrors the federal statute upon which Virginia's religious exemption statute is based.

The May policy insisted that parents meet with a group of staff members to discus the reasons for their objection to public school attendance. Under the new policy, the parents explain their convictions in a letter.

The May policy would have required children over 11 year of age to answer officials' questions about their religious beliefs. This is eliminated in the final version.

The May policy required families to supply the social security numbers of their children, in violation of the Federal Privacy Act of 1974. The new policy does not.

The new policy is logical, simple to administer, and consistent with state and federal law. It is a credit to the four homeschool families in the focus group who never sacrificed freedom for convenience, and to the school board members who invested the time and effort necessary to fully understand the subject.