More than 7,000 children in Virginia were exempted from mandatory school attendance last year under a state law that allows children to be excused due to families’ religious beliefs, according to a new report by the Child Advocacy Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law.
Virginia is the only state in the nation, however, that does not require any educational alternatives for children who receive religious exemptions from compulsory school attendance, according to the report, “7,000 Children and Counting: An Analysis of Religious Exemptions from Compulsory School Attendance in Virginia.”
“This is a law that potentially allows a large number of children to receive no education,” said Andrew Block, assistant professor and director of the Child Advocacy Clinic. “As a public policy matter, it’s in everyone’s interest to figure out how it’s operating. What we’ve learned and reported on will hopefully raise enough concerns among educators, policymakers and families so that they want to give the statute a second look.”
Christine Tschiderer, a 2012 U.Va. Law graduate and one of four law students who worked on the report, conducted the research comparing Virginia’s system to that of other states. She said the differences were shocking.
“Most states handle these requests through their home-school statutes and require that students receive educational services that way,” Tschiderer said. “The report raises so many questions about whether this is the best way to do things and we think that warrants further study. We’re not sure what the best solution is, but we’d like that thoughtful examination to occur.”
In addition to the nationwide comparison, the clinic partnered with Youth-Nex, the Center to Promote Effective Youth Development at U.Va.’s Curry School of Education, to design and distribute a survey to every superintendent in the commonwealth to learn how local school systems are implementing the law. More than 60 school divisions, or nearly 50 percent of all school systems, responded to the survey.
The survey responses revealed that school divisions are having difficulty following the law, which requires schools to excuse from attendance “any pupil who, together with his parents, by reason of bona fide religious training or belief is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school.”
Block said that school divisions granted the requested exemption in virtually every case.
“That could be because everybody who asked for an exemption has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with public school attendance,” Block said. “But it also could mean that the schools don’t have the capacity, guidance or incentive to conduct any deeper inquiry into the depth of those beliefs. And given the sensitive nature of the issue, who can blame them?”
And though the law requires schools to consider the religious beliefs of the child and not just the parent, Block said the survey results showed most school divisions never met with children to evaluate their beliefs.
The survey also found that school systems often grant religious exemptions when the student is very young, but almost never reassess the child’s status – even though a 1984 opinion from then-Virginia Attorney General Gerald Baliles states that school systems must conduct an annual review to determine if the basis for the exemption still exists. These reviews frequently do not occur, Block said.
“It is difficult to imagine any school division wanting to meet on an annual basis with parents and their children to determine whether on this most personal of subjects – their religious beliefs – the child’s views diverged from their parents’,” Block said. “And yet this is what the law seems to require.”
Yet another concern highlighted by the report is whether the Virginia religious exemption statute could be violating the state’s constitution. The Supreme Court of Virginia has interpreted the constitution as guaranteeing education as a “fundamental right.”
“If education in Virginia is a fundamental right, as our state Supreme Court has said, then we probably need more protections for the educational opportunities for exempted children than this statute provides,” Block said.
The report does not question parents’ rights or choices to seek educational alternatives for their children based on religious beliefs, Block said. It does, however, call on the state to revisit the framework in which these choices are made.
“We are not questioning anyone’s intentions here, whether it’s the drafters of the bill, the parents who request the exemption or the school divisions that try to implement the law,” Block said. “This is just one of those cases when good intentions can lead to unintended, impractical and perhaps unconstitutional consequences. Hopefully the concerns that we have raised will be enough for policymakers to want to get all the stakeholders together and see if there is a simpler and more effective approach to balancing the religious beliefs of families with the need to ensure that all children get an education.”
The School of Law’s Child Advocacy Clinic represents low-income children in Virginia who encounter problems with the education, foster care and juvenile justice systems. In the future, Block said, the clinic will continue to publish similar reports that highlight important issues affecting children in Virginia that might otherwise go unnoticed.
In addition to helping craft better policy for children, Block said he hopes that working on the reports provides a different kind of applied learning opportunity for students. The students in this project had the opportunity to learn about social science research methods, exercise autonomy in their writing, and think more broadly about the laws impacting children,” he said.
Some of that collaboration came through working with Youth-Nex;s Program Evaluation branch, which helped clinic students with the survey.
“Collaborating with a different school and discipline in the University to help better understand youth and what impacts them is exactly the kind of work Youth-Nex was established to do,” said Maryfrances Porter, Youth-Nex’s associate director for program evaluation and community. “In the Program Evaluation branch of Youth-Nex, we work directly to help understand and improve services and policies for young people in the commonwealth.
The unusual nature of Virginia’s religious exemption statute might have been little known before this report, but with more than 7,000 children directly affected by the statute, the law is more than an academic curiosity, Block said.
“To put that number in perspective, 7,000 is more students than are enrolled in three-quarters of the school divisions in Virginia,” he said.