Josh Powell, who was home-schooled in southern Virginia, talks with professor… (Bill O'Leary/The Washington…)
Josh Powell wanted to go to school so badly that he pleaded with local officials to let him enroll. He didn’t know exactly what students were learning at Buckingham County High School, in rural central Virginia, but he had the sense that he was missing something fundamental.
By the time he was 16, he had never written an essay. He didn’t know South Africa was a country. He couldn’t solve basic algebra problems.
“There were all these things that are part of this common collective of knowledge that 99 percent of people have that I didn’t have,” Powell said.
Powell was taught at home, his parents using a religious exemption that allows families to entirely opt out of public education, a Virginia law that is unlike any other in the country. That means that not only are their children excused from attending school — as those educated under the state’s home-school statute are — but they also are exempt from all government oversight.
School officials don’t ever ask them for transcripts, test scores or proof of education of any kind: Parents have total control.
Powell’s family encapsulates the debate over the long-standing law, with his parents earnestly trying to provide an education that reflects their beliefs and their eldest son objecting that without any structure or official guidance, children are getting shortchanged. Their disagreement, at its core, is about what they think is most essential that children learn — and whether government, or families, should define that.
While some national advocates fight for the right of parents to educate their children at home, Powell thinks children — most urgently, his siblings — should have the right to go to public school, too.
For supporters, Virginia’s religious exemption law ensures an important liberty in a state where Thomas Jefferson made religious freedom one of the defining principles of U.S. democracy.
Opponents also cite Jefferson’s legacy, saying the founding fathers thought education was essential to a successful nation. They warn that the statute leaves open the possibility that some of the nearly 7,000 children whose parents claim a religious exemption aren’t getting an education at all.
At a time when U.S. public education is becoming increasingly uniform, with many states sharing common standards of what children should be learning, Virginia allows for the most personal and individualized of approaches.
“I think it’s important that parents have a role in instilling in their children a world view that does not exclude God,” said Powell’s father, Clarence Powell. “It’s a sacred honor to be able to home-educate your children and instill in them values in a way that’s consistent with your faith.”
He knows how much is at stake.
“As Josh has pointed out, and I believe he’s 100 percent accurate, a good education is not an option. It’s essential,” Clarence Powell said. “You basically get one opportunity to do it. If you come out on the other side deficient, it’s hard to make up for that. If you’re a loving parent, the last thing you want to do is create a situation where your children are limited or hindered.”
He’s proud of his son’s accomplishments. Josh Powell eventually found a way to get several years of remedial classes and other courses at a community college.
Now he’s studying at Georgetown University.
“He’s a very amazing young man,” Clarence Powell said. “But home school had a part in that.”
Josh Powell, now 21, wonders how much more he could have accomplished if he hadn’t spent so much time and effort catching up.
“I think people should definitely have the freedom to home-school as long as it’s being done well and observed,” he said. “I don’t see any reason for there not to be accountability.”
Most of all, he worries about his siblings: There are 11. One, old enough to be well into middle school, can’t read, Josh Powell said.
Now he’s trying to get his brothers and sisters into school, to ensure that they don’t have to work as hard as he did to catch up — or get left behind.
“I almost have survivor’s guilt,” he said. He loves his family and stays in close touch with it, but he said he is frustrated. “I feel like I made it out alive and I’m doing okay, but I’m not sure everyone else can because there’s so much that’s gotten so much worse.”
‘A rock and a hard place’
Even before he was married, Clarence Powell thought he’d like to home-school his children someday.
He was struck by two children at his church who were taught at home. They seemed advanced academically, but he was even more impressed by the life skills they were learning.
“The young woman was doing homemaking, sewing, learning to cook, and the boy was doing farming,” able at 13 to raise and sell a bull calf, he said.