HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on July 31, 2013.
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.
So starts a recent Washington Post article about Virginia’s religious exemption.
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.
. . .
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.
. . .
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.
Go read the whole thing—the article is excellent. The long and short of it is that Josh’s parents used Virginia’s religious exemption clause to get out of any requirement to teach him anything, and then proceeded to give him what he knew was a substandard education, despite his desire to learn more than they were teaching him. In the end, Josh overcame all of that and managed to obtain remedial classes at a community college (without his parents’ help, I should add) and then gain admission to Georgetown. And now, he wants to see the law changed so that other children will not find themselves in his situation.
What I want to turn to now is HSLDA’s response. Before I do that, I should mention that the article includes a quote from Michael Farris. It’s not long:
The law is completely clear, said Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, who has claimed the exemption for his family. It doesn’t make sense to have the public school system regulate home schools, he said, because he thinks home schools are far more successful.
As to whether there could be children getting an inadequate education, he said: “Well sure, it’s possible. But there are whole public school districts that are slipping through the cracks.”
Dear Mr. Farris: What you said is called “tu quoque.” It is a logical fallacy. You are a lawyer, you should know that.
Now with that out of the way, what I really want to look at is the official response HSLDA issued the day after the Washington Post article came out.
“Oh, my God, I have a chance to learn!” The Washington Post’s recent article about Virginia’s religious exemption statute includes this fascinating quote from Josh Powell, the young man who never attended public school because his parents obtained an exemption on religious grounds.
The article criticizes the law that allows the exemption and lobbies for its change. But let’s slow down and think this through.
How many public school teachers ever hear their students say, “Oh, my God, I have a chance to learn”? Very few. Because sadly, public schools crush many kids’ desire to ever learn again. And this has been documented.
The largest study comparing homeschool students to others (by Dr. Lawrence M. Rudner, University of Maryland) amazingly revealed that homeschool 8th grade students score the same as 12th grade public school students!
Why do homeschool students score an almost unbelievable four grade levels ahead of others by 8th grade? It’s very simple. It’s not that homeschool kids or their parents have higher IQs—I suspect they don’t. It’s simply that homeschools don’t crush a kid’s inborn desire to learn.
What is HSLDA’s evidence that public schools crush children’s “inborn desire to learn” while homeschooling doesn’t? The Rudner study.
Let’s review, shall we?
Somehow I feel like we’ve been over this before. (Also, if you haven’t, you should read this excellent article as well.) What did Rudner’s study say and how does he feel about the way HSLDA uses it?
Rudner’s study was funded and sponsored by the Home School Legal Defense Assocation. It analyzed the test results of more than 20,000 home schooled students using the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and it was interpreted by many to find that the average home schooled student outperformed his or her public school peer. But Rudner’s study reaches no such conclusion, and Rudner himself issued multiple cautionary notes in the report, including the following: “Because this was not a controlled experiment, the study does not demonstrate that home schooling is superior to public or private schools and the results must be interpreted with caution.” Rudner used a select and unrepresentative sample, culling all of his participants from families who had purchased curricular and assessment materials from Bob Jones University. Because Bob Jones University is an evangelical Christian university (a university which gained a national reputation in the 1980s for its policy of forbidding interracial dating), the sample of participating families in Rudner’s study is highly skewed toward Christian home schoolers. Extrapolations from this data to the entire population of home schoolers are consequently highly unreliable. Moreover, all the participants in Rudner’s study had volunteered their participation. According to Rudner, more than 39,000 contracted to take the Iowa Basic Skills Test through Bob Jones, but only 20,760 agreed to participate in his study. This further biases Rudner’s sample, for parents who doubt the capacity of their child to do well on the test are precisely the parents we might expect not to volunteer their participation. A careful social scientific comparison of test score data would also try to take account of the problem that public school students take the Iowa Basic Skills Test in a controlled environment; many in Rudner’s study tested their own children.
Rudner himself has been frustrated by the misrepresentation of his work. In an interview with the Akron Beacon Journal, which published a pioneering week-long investigative series of articles on home schooling in 2004, Rudner claimed that his only conclusion was that if a home schooling parent “is willing to put the time and energy and effort into it – and you have to be a rare person who is willing to do this – then in all likelihood you’re going to have enormous success.” Rudner also said, “I made the case in the paper that if you took the same kids and the same parents and put them in the public schools, these kids would probably do exceptionally well.”
In other words, the Rudner study doesn’t say what HSLDA says it says, and Rudner himself is frustrated about how HSLDA is misusing and misinterpreting his study. In other words, HSLDA’s supposed “proof” that public school stifles a child’s “inborn desire to learn” while homeschooling does not is proof of no such thing.
Back to HSLDA’s response to the Washington Post article:
When he hit community college, Josh attended remedial classes designed to serve public high school graduates, then zoomed ahead. Now he attends one of the nation’s top 25 universities, earning good grades while working part time and carrying a heavy academic load. Not too bad for a kid who thought he had a bad secondary education!
If Josh had attended public schools, he would have statistically had a 1-in-5 chance of growing into an illiterate adult. The National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that 21.7% of adults in Josh’s native Buckingham County are illiterate. This is the wreckage of thousands of young people whose desire to learn has been crushed in the public schools.
I wonder if any of the other kids in Josh’s remedial classes went on to attend one of the nation’s top 25 universities. I doubt it.
Maybe Josh didn’t learn that South Africa was a country while he was being homeschooled. But he arrived at the gates of young adulthood with his inborn desire to learn fully intact, and that has served him very well indeed. The Virginia religious exemption statute deserves its place of respect.
The HSLDA response is, in essence, “your bad homeschool experience is nothing to complain about, because you could have a fate worse than receiving an incompetent homeschool education while begging to learn—you could go to public school!” Is HSLDA completely incapable of saying “we’re sorry your situation was so bad, we feel that it is a terrible thing for any child to slip through the cracks”? Are they incapable of hearing “that hurt me” and responding with “we’re sorry”?
All I have to say is this: Where is your sense of compassion, HSLDA?
R.L.: In general, I appreciate your efforts to lobby HSLDA to be more sensitive to issues like this, but I think it’s important to remember that HSLDA provides legal services and is bound by certain ethical and legal duties that could prevent it from expressing sympathy for Josh Powell. If HSLDA represents a party involved, they have an ethical responsibility not to make public statements that could be construed as admissions against their client’s interest.
Now, I don’t know the details of this case, but for example, if HSLDA did in fact say something along the lines of, “We’re sorry, it’s not cool that you didn’t know how to solve basic algebra problems” (as HA’s Facebook post suggests), then they could be violating a duty they owe their clients. An attorney should never make a public statement that indicates there is merit to his or her opponents’ arguments.
This isn’t to suggest their response was necessarily ideal. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that they have clients to whom they owe a duty. Those clients are home school parents; HSLDA has an ethical duty to do everything in their power to further their clients’ interests.
As a daughter of religious parents who homeschooled, your answer makes me so angry I had to revise this comment multiple times.
HSLDA cannot show compassion or humanity? [HA note: comment modified due to Comment Policy #4.] This world doesnt need any more people of that caliber.
DoaHF: I agree that it is frustrating. And I think they can and should show both compassion and humanity. It’s just that they may have duties to their clients that limit the way they show it.
[HA note: comment edited to reflect modification of original comment.]
With respect, J, HSLDA was not functioning as a legal advocate for the rights of homeschool families when it responded to the Washington Post. It was acting as a lobbying group speaking up for a law that its leadership has decided to support. I hate to pick at nits. However, I think the distinction is important because, as considering about what’s been said here over the past few months about the HSLDA’s activities, I don’t see how the HSLDA can perform both roles responsibly. To try to drive what I’m saying home: as lawyers, the people at the HSLDA have an ethical and legal responsibility to see that the law’s obeyed. Yet, the HSLDA has discouraged homeschool families from reporting suspected cases of child abuse to Child Protective Services (the legally-constituted agency responsible for identifying instances of child abuse and protecting the interests of the victims) ultimately because of its (in my opinion, extreme, short-sighted, and irresponsible) views regarding the state. It’s high time that people in the homeschool community recognize the HSLDA for what it is anymore–not a legal advocacy group dedicated to protecting parents’ right to educate their children at home, but a political lobby committed to its own vision of the family, the church, and the state.
Re the first half of your response: Legal representation and lobbying do not fit so neatly in different silos. HSLDA would be poor lawyers indeed if they did not see Josh Powell’s story as the prelude to a lawsuit–potentially implicating Powell’s parents who are presumably HSLDA members. It would be negligent for them to make statement at this stage acknowledging Powell’s story.
Re the second: I agree that HSLDA should be more sensitive to the child abuse problem (which, however, is neither here nor there when it comes the Powell story). And in any event, you misunderstand the duties of lawyers. Do you also think criminal defense lawyers have an “legal and ethical responsibility” to make sure their clients confess to their crimes? Must they advise clients to consent to police searching their homes if they have incriminating evidence?
Liquidated by the Purity of their Ideology, Comrade.
I am sorry to be off-topic, but I see one thing that could improve in the new site layout: Old articles are not accessible by just scrolling down and choosing a “previous page” option. A new reader could easily assume there is no articles older than the “recent articles” option. To serve your readers better – some of them needing the stories which are now easy to miss – look how you could make them intuitively accessible again.
Thanks Retha. We were getting feedback that the site layout was getting sprawling and thus unaccessible. So we were hoping to remedy that. I’ve added an Archive section below the Recent Posts to help with accessing everything, in addition to drop-down menus at the top. Does that help?
There is nothing more disrespectful to the victim of some form of abuse than to claim that the very method of their abuse was good for them. This is classic manipulative behavior used by abusers. “I’m hurting you? At least I’m giving you a roof over your head; you should be grateful!” Or “You want us to stop harassing you about your sexuality because it’s abusive? Hey, it’s better than us letting you be a homosexual; you should be thanking us.” It’s really not any better than “You were denied a chance to have an education by your parents? Well at least they didn’t send you to public school; you should be grateful for your educational abuse!” This sort of manipulation has no place in civil discourse and any adult should know better.
There are ways to disagree with Josh’s opinions on the VA law without trying to retell his story for him. You could say “it is unfortunate that the law was abused in this case, but it still has merits in case A, B and C.” However, I’ve found many fundamentalist Christians are unwilling to allow for even that much moral ambiguity. If they support something, it must mean that it is right ALL THE TIME. If any narrative surfaces that contradicts that, they must discredit it, dismiss it, or silence the messenger. It is sickening. HSDLA, Josh’s story is not yours to tell. It is his. He was hurt by the VA law, and it is disrespectful for you to try to tell him “no, no, no, that’s not what really happened to you. The VA law actually HELPED you… you just don’t know, you silly child.” IT. IS. NOT. YOUR. STORY. Have the decency to accept that his narrative is valid. It doesn’t mean you have to stop advocating for these laws or that you have to agree with his opinions on everything. It is just the decent, human, compassionate thing to do.
That’s my two cents.
You ever watch an old movie called Gaslight? It’s about this guy who messes with his wife’s mind by questioning everything she says, and makes her think she’s insane. That’s what this response by HSLDA reminds me of.