MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're switching gears now and at this point in the summer, many American families are focusing on squeezing in some last minute vacation time and getting ready to go back to school - buying backpacks, getting vaccinations and so on. Today, we want to talk about an increasingly popular form of education that doesn't necessarily involve any of those things. We're talking about homeschooling. According to the latest information available from the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 1.5 million children were homeschooled in 2007, that's the latest year hard numbers are available. And that represents a 74 percent increase since 1999. And we've talked about this subject before, some of our regular guest with experience in homeschooling. We'll hear from a group of parents later.
But first, we want to hear the experience of a student, or formally homeschooled student. One young man in Virginia. That state allows families to opt out of public school for religious reasons without requiring any information about the level of education being delivered at home. Josh Powell's parents applied for a religious exemption for him and his eleven siblings. They were taught at home by their mother. But Josh came to believe his education was falling short. He eventually took remedial classes on his own. He's now a student at Georgetown University and his story was featured recently in an article in the Washington Post and he's with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
JOSH POWELL: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: Do remember ever going to school when you were a kid?
POWELL: No. I never went to a class. Actually, my first time ever in a classroom was when I was 17 taking a pre-algebra class.
MARTIN: Did you, when you were growing up, ever talk to your parents about why you and your siblings didn't go to school like other kids? Or where, in your neighborhood, was that the norm? Was homeschooling the norm?
POWELL: It actually wasn't. We knew a couple other home school families, but not in the immediate vicinity. So we definitely did have conversations about it. It was something that they talked about a lot. They firmly believed that it was a conviction from God to home school us and they said that if we went to public school they wouldn't be able to share their religious beliefs and train us in those beliefs. And so homeschooling was what they felt was the best option for that.
MARTIN: When did you start to ask about it? And what made you start to ask about it?
POWELL: Well, my early education was great. I mean, I learned to read when I was four. I was reading like small chapter books. But then after middle school, things just sort of fell apart. I don't think, as the material became more specialized and more advanced, that my parents were equipped to teach it. And so I remember learning, or trying to learn, pre-algebra and coming to my mom with a problem and she, basically, couldn't figure it out and was like, pray, ask God. He'll help you figure it out. And that wasn't working for me. So I asked them, I was like, hey, well, like, this isn't working for me. Can I do something else?
MARTIN: And they said what?
POWELL: They said, no. And we had quite a few discussions about it. I had tried to, basically, tell them the reasons that I wanted to go and make it clear that it wasn't me trying to abandon them or any of that. But just that I wanted the support and structure. And at one point, they actually agreed, but then they were advised from the HSLDA, the Home School Legal Defense Association, that allowing one of their kids to go to school might jeopardize their religious exemption status. So they ended up changing their mind and saying I had to stay at home.
MARTIN: Why is that?
POWELL: I'm not really sure the logic behind it. I think the lawyer from HSLDA basically thought that if they allowed one kid to go to school that would sort of negate their stance of saying that they needed to home school for religious reasons. But the interesting thing was the Buckingham County School Board actually, flat out, told my parents that that wasn't the case.
MARTIN: You actually petitioned local education officials to be allowed to attend public school at one point. What happened then?
POWELL: I did and they were very dismissive. The administrator basically said listen to your parents. And so I was really sort of discouraged by that, because I knew that I wasn't getting the education that I was looking for at home. And so at that point, I basically just sort of resolved myself to take GED classes...
MARTIN: ...GED classes - general education classes, a lot of people who dropped out of high school take those classes in order to complete their high school education outside of the regular public high school. How did you figure that - how did you do that? Where did you go?
POWELL: Well, luckily I lived very close to the library and they offered free classes there. As you said, it's a lot of people that usually drop out of high school so I was the only, I think, under 18-year-old in the classroom, which was a different experience, but it was great. The GED coordinator there was amazing and helped me enroll at the community college and apply for financial aid and all of that.
MARTIN: And eventually you made it to Georgetown.
POWELL: I did...
MARTIN: ...And how are you doing there?
POWELL: Really well. It was quite an adjustment at first, it was very overwhelming. I mean, a very different sort of socioeconomic background from what I'm used to, a very different educational background. A lot of kids went to private school and I had never set foot in school before community college, so that was very different. But my teachers are great, very supportive, very understanding.
MARTIN: There are people who will be listening to our conversation, and I say this with the utmost respect, who will consider your parents abusive.
MARTIN: They will consider it educational malpractice, they will consider it abusive for them to have deprived you of an education that you feel you need in order to function in today's world. And I also note that your mother is a college graduate. Right?
POWELL: She is.
MARTIN: She went to a very good school. She went to the University of Virginia...
POWELL: ...She did.
MARTIN: ...As I recall. You don't see it that way?
POWELL: I don't. I think that I was very lucky and that my parents did love and care for me and my siblings. And they do wish the best. I think we have very different ideas about what the best means and what that is and how that plays out. But I don't think it's abusive, in my case. But the problem that I see is that it could be abusive.
MARTIN: And they did allow you to go and get your GED and take those classes. And they did allow you to go to community college. Or did you have to emancipate yourself at that point to do that?
POWELL: No, they allowed me to do that.
MARTIN: They did allow you to do that.
POWELL: Yeah. It was just public school through K-12 that they seemed to have the issue with.
MARTIN: Why did you decide to go public about this?
POWELL: That's a good question. I saw an article last year, also in the Post, that was talking about the report that the UVA Child Advocacy Clinic released, talking about the 7,000 plus homeschooled students in Virginia under the religious exemption law. I was ecstatic. I was amazed that someone was finally paying attention to this. And so I contacted Andy Block, who's the director of the Child Advocacy Clinic at UVA and, basically, my goal was to one, let him know that the hypothetical that he hypothesized in the report was a reality and that there were stories that matched that. And two, because I was hoping to petition and advocate for my siblings, who I think would be better served by another education alternative.
MARTIN: Well, you've got eight siblings of school age still at home.
MARTIN: And what's the problem? What is it that you're concerned about?
POWELL: I think that the problem is that, as I said, I got a very solid foundation. Also in the Post article, it mentioned one of my siblings who is of middle school-age and can't read. And I think that if you don't get that solid foundation, that it's really hard to catch up. And the problem is there's no accountability, there's no help and once he's behind I'm just not sure that he'd be able to progress.
MARTIN: So in Virginia, your understanding of the law is that once the parents use their religious exemption there's really no oversight at all.
POWELL: That's exactly it. I never took a standardized test, I never set foot in a classroom. I never had so much as a conversation with the school board, outside of the one that I initiated. And so they're just completely off the map. And even though I'm doing pretty well, I think, I could be the exception, I could not be, but we don't know. There's no monitoring, there's no reporting and there's very little information. And so I think that's the scariest thing about this whole situation.
MARTIN: How have your parents reacted to you? In fact, and your other siblings, for that matter, reacted to your taking your story public?
POWELL: It's tense. It's tense. Yeah. My siblings, I think, are mostly excited. Many of them want to go to school and so I think they're excited as they see this as an opportunity to do so.
MARTIN: What do you want people to draw from your experience and this conversation?
POWELL: I think my biggest concern is for my siblings. I've been working to petition the school board to at least have a conversation with my siblings, because as Andy Block and I understand the religious exemption law, the school board has to consider the child's beliefs alongside the parent and that never happened in my case. They never talked to myself or my siblings, asked them, hey, like, do you share your parents beliefs, do you also need to be homeschooled under the religious exception. And so first and foremost, I think that the school boards need to be accountable under the current law. But I think it's also sort of a strange law that requires a secular institution like the school board to sort of be the arbitrator of a parent and child's religious belief. I think that just puts the school board in an uncomfortable position that they shouldn't be put in.
MARTIN: Well, what do you want to do now? What's your plan?
POWELL: That's a good question. I don't know if I have a plan. I'm trying to just sort of see what happens. I'm loving being in school. I think I would love to be an educator. I tutored a little bit at my previous community college and have taught a couple of classes on a very small scale and loved every minute of it. So I really want to stay in education and be an advocate for those that might be underrepresented or underserved.
MARTIN: Josh Powell was homeschooled throughout his childhood. He is now a student at Georgetown University and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Josh Powell, thank you so much for speaking with us. Good luck to you.
POWELL: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.