Compulsory school attendance became the law in West Virginia in 1897. In 1939, Exemption B of the state’s compulsory school law provided for homeschooling. Under this exemption, each individual county superintendent and board of education had the right to approve or deny a family’s request to homeschool and to regulate homeschooling as they saw fit. A family’s freedom to homeschool depended on the county in which it lived, with attitudes ranging from absolute refusal to permit it to very cooperative relationships between county and homeschoolers. There was no uniformity across the state. This was the situation through the early 1980s.
The few homeschooling families in the state at this time were loosely knit through a newsletter called Alternatives in Education. People in Roane County produced the newsletter during 1981 and 1982, after which Deirdre Purdy of Chloe assumed publication of it, continuing until 1987.
During the 1983 legislative session, West Virginians for Religious Freedom, led by Dr. Phil Suiter, a former assistant state superintendent of schools, introduced Senate Bill 184 providing Exemption K for private, parochial, church, or other nonpublic schools. This exemption was not intended to be used for homeschooling, but since it included “other nonpublic schools,” homeschooling families quickly took advantage of it when it became law, registering with the state as private schools, thereby bypassing control and regulation by individual counties. For several years, most homeschoolers in the state used Exemption K with no trouble, while some in “good” counties still used Exemption B.
Dr. Suiter was instrumental in bringing homeschooling families together when, in December 1985, he arranged a meeting/seminar of homeschoolers called Ethics and Commitment in Home Education at Appalachian Bible College in Beckley. Homeschoolers from all over the state attended. Dr. Suiter urged us to organize. We would need organization and unity to “keep an eye on“ legislators and bureaucrats, who consider it part of their job to try to control home education. A committee was formed to begin formulating the structure, purposes, constitution, etc., of such an organization.
From this emerged the West Virginia Home Educators Association, officially begun in the spring of 1986, with Don Fox of Glenville serving as president. The group saw as its first and foremost goal the promotion and development of high quality home education. Protecting the freedom of parents to home-educate was also a number one priority. Other goals included establishing local support groups or networks around the state,distributing information considered vital to home educators, developing educational opportunities to help parents, and others involved in home education, and keeping fellow homeschoolers informed of significant governmental and moral issues that had the potential of affecting home education.
At exactly the same time that WVHEA was being formed, State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Tom McNeel, asked State Attorney General Charlie Brown for an opinion as to whether homeschools should be operating under Exemption K. Brown decided: “If your school is providing instruction in the home to only your own children, it would appear that you should apply for Exemption B status….”
Dr. Suiter and Don Fox met with Dr. McNeel, which resulted in McNeel agreeing to wait for clarifying legislative action before he took action against homeschool families operating under Exemption K.
One of WVHEA’s earliest tasks became formulating legislation to guarantee the rights of homeschoolers. The first thought was to amend Exemption K to specifically define home education to fit this exemption.However, there was considerable opposition from legislators and Christian schools to our tampering with Exemption K. So attention turned to Exemption B.Since the current Exemption B was not a problem in “friendly” counties, it seemed easiest to add a section to it similar to Exemption K, which simply requires notification. Our lobbying efforts proved successful, resulting in the addition of Subsection b to Exemption B. The former Exemption B is now subsection a.
With a good law now in place, WVHEA and homeschoolers across the state were able to focus on some of the other goals and projects. After sponsoring a seminar with Raymond and Dorothy Moore and joining the Christian Schools Association for a conference in 1986, WVHEA struck out on its own to sponsor state conferences and curriculum fairs. Minor problems in several counties, including a court case in Braxton County were dealt with satisfactorily.
In the fall of 1988, a nationwide push to establish exclusively “Christian” organizations in the states was launched following a conference sponsored by The Teaching Home magazine. WVHEA had always defined itself as a service organization for homeschoolers rather than a religious organization. Several times over the years, the issue of whether to remain non-sectarian came up at board meetings. The majority always resolved the issue by remaining true to its original mission: to be a service organization for all rather than a religion-oriented organization. In a survey of the membership in 1989, 78 % of those responding agreed that WVHEA should continue as a service organization.
However, Don and Penny Fox, who had attended the 1988 Teaching Home conference, increasingly wished to change WVHEA into a ministry for evangelical Christians. In the summer of 1990, they said that if WVHEA did not become such an organization, they would resign. At the August 1990 board meeting, the board voted to accept their resignations and remain a nonsectarian service organization. Don and Penny subsequently started an organization to minister to evangelical Christian homeschoolers in West Virginia; they named it Christian Home Educators of West Virginia (CHEWV).
During all these years, homeschooling has continued to grow in West Virginia. At the time WVHEA was formed, there were approximately 60 Exemption K homeschools. Today the number of homeschooling families in the state is in the tens of thousands and continues to grow.