Loudoun school leaders ran down their list of legislative priorities this morning for the state senators and delegates who represent the county in the General Assembly.
During the annual Legislative Breakfast, School Board members listed several changes they would like to see at the state level when Loudoun’s delegation returns to Richmond next month. Most of the discussion among school leaders and lawmakers centered around four issues: the potential for a mandatory dual enrollment tuition fee, the state’s perimeters on school divisions’ calendars, moving some elections to Saturdays, and the controversial request for a tweak in homeschool policy that prompted an outpouring of opposition last week.
On the homeschool policy, School Board members tried to clarify for the legislators that they would have liked to go back and change the language they initially adopted—that some have said makes it sound like the board wants to get rid of homeschool families’ option to claim religious exemption—but the meeting calendar did not allow that before today’s Legislative Breakfast.
The board’s adopted stance states that it “supports legislative changes to the Virginia Code § 22.1-254(B)(1) related to religious exemption from compulsory public school attendance to require that a child be guaranteed the fundamental right to an education by his or her parent or legal guardian, in compliance with Article VIII of the Constitution of Virginia, through an alternative public, private, parochial and/or approved home instruction setting.”
“The word ‘approval’ is the sticking point. There is a consensus on the School Board that the wording is not entirely accurate in terms of what we’re wanting to do,” said Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles), adding that the board has voted to return the item to its Legislative and Policy Committee, which will likely move away from words like “approval” and “authority” and toward “acknowledgement” and “confirmation.”
Eric Hornberger (Ashburn), Tom Marshall (Leesburg) and Beth Huck (At Large) said the board’s intent was to align the Virginia Constitution, which states that children have a right to an education, with the Virginia Code, which allows for parents to claim religious exemption without requiring them to commit to providing their child an education.
“As with any contract, when you find a loophole, you don’t just turn a blind eye to it. You fix it,” said Huck, who’s nieces and nephews are homeschooled.
“The provision we’re asking for is that they commit to educate that child—that’s all. Not control over how they educate that child,” Hornberger said.
Even so, state Sen. Richard “Dick” Black (R-13), whose grandchildren are homeschooled, said he wouldn’t support legislation that in any way limited homeschooling, even if he had a gun to his head.
Del. Wendy Gooditis (D-10), who founded a homeschool program, said she knows firsthand that vast majority of homeschool parents are providing their children with an excellent education. “But I do know sadly of a few of the exceptions,” she added. “It’s a hard question—how do we protect those few without endangering the majority? … I look forward to a continuing discussion about this.”
The School Board is also requesting that statewide elections be moved from weekdays to Saturdays. Hornberger explained that about 70 percent of the county’s public schools are polling sites. Students are out of school on the first Tuesday of November because it’s a standing election day, but it’s tougher to schedule around primary and special elections.
“We believe this would help enhance safety and help with the operations of our schools,” Hornberger said.
Other board members and legislators said changing elections to a weekend would also make it easier for voters to get to the polls.
The board’s legislative consultant, Ron Jordan, said that it may be difficult to get this through the General Assembly because the Virginia State Board of Elections and the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia have been “generally hostile” to any big changes to elections.
Del. David Reid (D-32) said that may be because some in the party controlling the House of Delegates—Republicans—have been against improving voter access for fear that they might be voted out of office. “There has been a reticence to open up the ability for people to vote easier for fear of the outcome,” he added. “So hopefully, as we see a change in the demographics of the General Assembly, we’ll see a change in improving voter access.”
Reid was also hopeful of another item on the board’s wish list—to return control over public schools’ calendars to individual school systems. Reid said there were eight bills last year that were consolidated into one bill that aimed at overturning the so-called King’s Dominion Law, which requires school districts to begin their academic year after Labor Day unless they get a waiver that is dependent on the number of snow days.
“I really do hope this is the year we can move this forward,” Reid said. “You know best what you need to do for your jurisdiction.”