Why Are Christian Fundamentalist Parents Allowed to Deny Their Kids Basic Literacy?
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The appropriate balance between freedom and harm can be hard to strike, particularly when it comes to religious freedom. In an attempt to find this balance, religious conservatives have been granted exemptions from a wide range of civil rights laws and social obligations. In the last two decades, one of the exemptions they have secured in many states is the right to opt out of school attendance for their children.
Led by a group called Home School Legal Defense Association, a network of institutions and activists have sprung up to advocate the rights of parents to educate their children—or not—as they please. Now the largest generation of home-schooled children are coming of age, and some are telling horror stories that suggest parent privilege may have gone too far.
It was not so much homeschooling that traumatized me as much as my mother’s mental illness. This was hidden by homeschooling, and the pain that damaged me came from the constant exposure to her psychiatric illness. I feel like someone roasted me over a fire, leaving me with burns to rest the remainder of my life, and I didn’t even know at the time what fire was.
Nationally, the fight over homeschooling is heating up, with dramatic changes to existing laws set to be discussed in both Virginia and Utah during 2014.
On January 8, Virginia statesman Tom Rust introduced House Joint Resolution 92, requesting the state’s Department of Education to review Virginia’s religious exemption to compulsory school attendance. Under current rules, Virginia parents who enroll as a home school must meet basic requirements, but by filing a separate religious exemption they can excuse themselves altogether from the duty to educate their children. Rust’s resolution asks the Department of Education to examine whether the exemption, which is the only one of its kind in the nation, violates a state constitutional provision that makes education a civil right.
Meanwhile, as Virginians look to narrow their state’s exemption to ensure that all kids learn the basics, like how to read, Utah Senator Aaron Osmond has announced his plan to bring Virginia’s unfettered religious exemption to the state of Utah in the form of Senate Bill 39. Osmond told reporters that under his plan religious parents would still be subject to prosecution for educational neglect; however a review of Osmond’s proposal by the Coalition for Responsible Home Education concludes that since Utah defines educational neglect according to their state’s homeschooling requirements, parents who are exempt from those standards would also be immune from prosecution for educational neglect—even if they fail to educate their children at all.
Religious groups have come out in support of the proposal in Utah and are also demanding that Virginia’s Joint Resolution 92 be retracted before the requested inquiry has even begun. These groups claim that the right to education is voluntary, like the right to vote, and that parents should have the freedom to decide whether to exercise this right on their children’s behalf.
Heather Doney, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, disagrees: “Parents have the right to direct their children’s education, but they should not have the right to deny them basic literacy.” Doney speaks from experience. As the eldest of 10 children in a devout homeschooling family, she was the only one who could read until her grandparents intervened and the children were allowed to attend school.
As with nutritional or sanitary neglect, lack of education can create lifelong hardships for those it affects. Ask any adult who has taken a college course while working full-time. Then imagine tackling years of remedial elementary, middle and high school courses while supporting yourself—and possibly a family—with a job so menial it doesn’t require a high school education. This outcome may not be the homeschool norm, but on websites like Homeschoolers Anonymous, homeschool alumni are reporting experiences of educational neglect in alarming numbers.