A bill allowing homeschool students to try out for public school athletic teams sailed through Virginia’s House of Delegates on Feb. 9.
Members voted 59-39 in favor of legislation modeled on 1996 Florida law that allowed Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, then a homeschooled student, to develop his football talent on a public school team.
Delegates who had sponsored two similar bills dropped theirs to stand behind H.R. 947, sponsored by Del. Robert Bell (R-Albemarle). The state Senate still must consider the bill. Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has said he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
“Homeschoolers pay taxes like everybody else. It’s just fair,” McDonnell said.
Eighteen states currently allow homeschoolers to try out for public school athletic teams.
Standards ‘Strictest in the Country’
The Virginia High School League, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, and the Virginia Education Association have all publicly opposed the bill, because they say it doesn’t hold homeschool students to the same standards for athletic participation as those who attend public institutions.
For example, public school students must take at least five courses and meet certain grade-point-averages to maintain eligibility for sports participation. How can families prove homeschool classes and grades are compareable?
Virginia’s bill actually imposes tighter scholastic standards for homeschoolers than those required in all the other states that allow homeschool athletic participation, said Scott Woodruff, senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association, in an email.
“If this were a good-faith argument, I would have expected the Virginia High School League to offer an amendment to Delegate Bell’s bill that would make changes to the eligibility requirements. But they have not,” Woodruff said. “Delegate Bell’s bill is the strictest in the country with respect to the length of time. Homeschoolers must prove their academic progress for two years before even trying out.”
Woodruff noted HSDLA neither supports nor opposes the measure.
Limits to Play
Bell’s bill lets schools assess “reasonable fees” on homeschool students “to cover the costs of participation in such interscholastic programs,” according to its text. It also limits homeschoolers to participating in programs at “the school serving the attendance zone in which such student lives,” though opponents have claimed it would let public school coaches recruit choice players and unfairly stack their teams.
“These are all current Virginia High School League requirements,” Bell said, in an email, of his bill’s mandates. “The only ones we don’t include would be those that require the homeschooler to be a public school student.”
The bill also includes a sunset provision, requiring Virginia lawmakers to revisit the program in five years to determine its benefit. Without legislative action, the bill would expire. And it stipulates that local governments and school boards could impose their own participation rules beyond those outlined in the bill, Bell said.
Increased Sports Competition
Public school sports could actually gain by opening their playing fields and teams to homeschool students, Woodruff said.
“Everyone plays better when they are surrounded by good competition,” he said. “If homeschoolers are allowed to try out for public school teams, it will raise the level of the competition a little bit, in the long run. This will make for more competitive sports programs in Virginia public schools, which will benefit both public school students and homeschool students.”
On the flip side, however, homeschool sports leagues that currently exist will likely disappear if the bill becomes law, Woodruff added.
The Virginia General Assembly considered similar legislation since 2005. This year’s bill is widely seen as the best chance for passage, given the Republican Party’s domination and the governor’s support. Besides, common sense supports the idea, Woodruff said.
“Consider why we have sports programs in the first place in public schools. The premise is that we believe those programs will benefit public school students. There is no compelling reason to exclude those presumptive benefits from homeschool students,” Woodruff said. “If sports are good for kids, why not let homeschool kids try out for the team?”
Image by Jeffrey Beall.