Bill aims to give home-schooled students access to public high school sports

February 5, 2012

Seventeen-year-old Katie Wormald has more than a passing interest in soccer. She’s been playing since she was 5, plans to compete in college — and maybe earn a business degree to start a soccer-related company.

But because Wormald attends classes in her living room instead of a classroom, she lost a chance to play on a more competitive public high school team. Instead, she plays in recreational leagues, on travel teams and at a small, local private school.

“I was disappointed to not have the opportunities that others did,” the Leesburg teen said.

State legislators are considering whether to allow Virginia’s tens of thousands of home-schooled students to play sports at their local high schools.

The “Tebow bill” — named for Tim Tebow, the starting Denver Broncos quarterback who was home-schooled in Florida but was allowed to play football at his local high school — is making its way through the legislative session.

“They just want to try out,” said the bill’s sponsor, Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Charlottesville), whose younger siblings were home-schooled. “They just want a chance to participate with their friends, their neighbors, their community members.”

But opponents, including some school boards and PTAs, say home-schooled kids are not required to meet the same academic criteria as public school athletes — attend and pass five classes per day — and that they would take team slots from their public school counterparts.

“I don’t like legislating based on what the headline is,’’ said Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax).

The legislation has been introduced in Virginia since 2005 with little success, but a change in control of the General Assembly to Republicans after November’s elections has supporters hoping the proposal is headed for victory. Some Democrats have opposed the measure because they think it would hurt public schools, a core constituency.

A House of Delegates committee passed the bill last week despite strong and vocal opposition by public school officials and Del. Robert Tata (R-Virginia Beach), the committee chairman, who is nicknamed “Coach” from his days as a high school football coach. The full House is expected to vote this week.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), the father of five children who attended public schools, has said he will sign the bill. “Home-school parents pay taxes like everybody else,” he said recently. “It’s just fair.”

More than 100 people crowded into a hearing room on Capitol Square last week to testify about the bill, many of them dressed-up children who delivered passionate speeches about wanting to play sports on their local school teams.

“Every Friday night I see the lights come on at my local high school and I wonder what it must be like to play in front of a hometown crowd,” said Patrick Foss, 17, of South Riding, ranked as the No. 16 college soccer recruit in the nation this year by ESPN.

Similar legislation has resonated across the nation as home-schooling continues to gain popularity and athletic standouts such as Tebow make headlines.

Sixteen states permit home-schooled students to play sports at public schools, according to the Purcellville-based Home School Legal Defense Association. Nine others leave the decision to localities or do not have laws prohibiting it.

“Home-schoolers are part of our community. To the extent that they pay taxes and contribute to our community, they ought to play sports,’’ said Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation, which lists the bill as one of its top priorities this session.

There’s no estimate on the number of Virginia children who would benefit from the law. State officials calculate that nearly 32,000 of them are home-schooled in Virginia, but the association thinks there are twice as many.

Kids who are home-schooled might be taught by their parents, attend classes with other home-school students in a co-op, take classes online or receive DVD instruction. Others might enroll in a class or two at a private school or community college.

Home-schooled students can play sports in their own leagues, or on recreational and travel teams. But for those who live in less populated areas of the state — and nation — high school sports are often the only game in town.

Matt Keyser and his wife decided to home-school their four kids, now ages 16 to 4, when they moved to Maryland’s Eastern Shore because they were not satisfied with public schools. They home-schooled even after they moved to Virginia.

The Keysers’ eldest child, Ethan, has been home-schooled since the second grade. He has played football and lacrosse on recreation and travel teams but wants to compete on more rigorous high school teams. If the legislation is approved, Ethan would be permitted to try out for the lacrosse team at Albemarle High School outside Charlottesville.

“One of the things I think is frustrating is the arbitrary roadblocks that have been put up,” Matt Keyser said. “I think allowing home-schoolers to participate — or try out — will go a long way to bridge gaps and misunderstandings” about home-schooled students.

The bill introduced by Bell bans public schools from partnering with the Virginia High School League — which governs high school activites in the state — because it forbids home-schoolers from playing sports or being involved in other programs such as drama, debate and yearbook. It only pertains to high schools, because children in lower grades are often able to play at their local public schools.

Home-schooled students would have to live in their local school district, try out for teams, and abide by disciplinary and academic criteria just like public school students. But school districts could charge reasonable fees or opt out of the program.

The change would sunset in 2017, and supporters would have to return to the state to reevaluate the situation after four years.

“At the end of that day, the bell rings, they’re responsible for their academic endeavors, and then on to practice and competition,” said Bill Curran, activities director of Fairfax County Public Schools. “It’s an unfair playing field if you don’t have that kind of rigor in your day.”

Wormald knows that even if the law changes this year it will be too late for her to partake in high school sports. But her parents think her four younger siblings might like the chance.

“It just seems like those opportunities should be available to every citizen of the state,” Ed Wormald said.

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