Study: Religious exemptions could keep Virginia children from getting an education

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RICHMOND, Va.  (WTVR) - A new study by the Child Advocacy Clinic at the University of Virginia School of law concluded some Virginia children might not be getting educated at all - if they received a religious exemption.

The study showed more than 7,000 children received religious exemptions during the 2010-2011 school year.

Religious exemptions are granted by local school districts when the parents believe a secular education interferes with the family’s religious beliefs.

When you get a religious exemption, unlike home schooling, the parent does not have to keep the school district's superintendent informed about their child’s progress.

The study found:

While this does not necessarily mean that religiously exempted children are not receiving an education, it does mean that Virginia law contemplates and allows for this possibility.

[To read the full study: Click Here for .pdf]

The study also concluded:

  • Virginia is the only state in the nation that does not require any education for children receiving religious exemptions from compulsory school attendance
  •  That local school divisions are frequently violating their legal obligations under Virginia’s religious exemption status, and that regardless of its positive intentions, a policy that currently permits more than 7,000 children to have unknown and unknowable educational opportunities should demand more careful examination by educators, families and policy makers.

But some disagree.

Scott Woodruff, Senior Counsel for the Home Legal Defense Association, called the conclusion of the study a “bizarre fallacy” -- citing that a study in the 1990’s found that religiously exempted children scored 35-percent higher than other students.

“People of faith have been in the forefront of the literacy movement since books were invented," he said. "Virginia didn’t have a compulsory attendance law until 1922, but in that supposedly dark era where parents weren’t compelled to educate their kids, Virginia produced six presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Harrison and Wilson."

Woodruff went on to say his daughter, currently working for the National Review, graduated from college in May after she received her high school education under the religious exemption.

Charles Pyle,  with the Virginia State Board of Education, said that since the 1970’s, the Virginia General Assembly has been easing the requirements for home schooling. And, as a result, more and more children are being home schooled each year.

What's more, Pyle said the courts have limited school board district members from asking parents too many questions about religion when the parents go before the school board requesting a religious exemption. As a result, he said more children are religiously exempted each year.