This is the headline that ran on a 2,500-word Washington Post story Sunday:
Student's home-schooling highlights debate over Va. religious-exemption law
But this headline would have described the Post's hit piece much more accurately:
Va. religious-exemption law highlights stupidity of home-schooling
This is GetReligion, and generally, I'd focus on how adequately — or not — the newspaper covered the religion angle on this story.
But the basic journalism here is so lousy that I feel I must address that first.
Let's start at the top:
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.
That opening pretty much sets the tone for the article. The Post takes the absolute worst-case scenario — a family that goes the home-schooling route and apparently flubs it — and uses it as the overarching lens through which to view the issue. That's unfortunate. And biased. And bad journalism.
Here's my question: Where's the other side of the story? Where's the Virginia home-schooled student who scored 2400 on the SAT? I Googled and found one quickly. This is from a 2007 Richmond Times-Dispatch story on a home-schooling convention (I couldn't find a direct link but saw this in the LexisNexis database):
Lauren Sturdy, a home-schooled senior from Williamsburg, scored a perfect 2,400 on her SAT.
Home schooling "was tailored to what I could [learn] . . . and what I wanted to study," she said. "And at the same time, it was fairly traditional as far as course material."
Sturdy plans to attend Washington and Lee University this year on a full scholarship.
In the Post story, no home-schooling students receive full scholarships. Instead, they inevitably must take remedial education in community college — if they can advance that far at all.
At various places, the story tackles the religion angle, including quoting Josh Powell's father:
“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.”
But given how badly this family has screwed up their son's education, the father really comes across as not the best poster parent for exercising the religious freedom exemption. That's fine. But if the Post wants to produce actual journalism, it needs to tell the other side of the story, too. That's my point.
I am blessed to know many exceptional home-schooling families. I'm in the Northeast this week and went to a Baltimore Orioles game last night with a preacher and his home-schooled daughter. His daughter is 16 and so far ahead of public school students that she skipped a grade.
But the Post apparently doesn't know many exceptional home-schooling families. Instead, the paper seems to knows many stereotypes, evidenced by its "reporting."
It's as if the Post found one car wreck and decided to use it as a long-winded expose on why driving is dangerous.
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