‘Tebow bill’ would let home-schoolers try out for public school teams

This could be Micah Fitz’s first spring without soccer. The 14-year-old has been playing since he was 3, but because he’s home-schooled, he can’t try out for the local team at Patriot High School in Prince William County.

The competitive league Micah has joined shuts down its practices this time of year, as most kids his age soon will begin playing for nearby school teams. Instead of competing year-round, Micah and other home-schooled students in Virginia have to sit out.

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“It’s very important to me,” he said. “I can’t play this half of the year and my teammates are going to be playing five or six times a week, they’re going to be getting better and stronger playing with kids that are good.”  

Micah and his family — along with many other home-schooling families across Virginia — are hoping the Virginia General Assembly will pass a bill this year that would allow kids like him to try out for spots on public school athletic teams. With growing numbers of students being educated at home, many states have passed laws allowing them to participate in high school sports. There are now more than 25,000 home-schooled students in Virginia.

The bill is nicknamed the “Tebow bill” after quarterback Tim Tebow, who was home-schooled but was allowed to play on a high school team before going to the University of Florida, where he led his team to two national championships and won the Heisman Trophy. He later was a first-round draft pick in the NFL.

Opponents of the bill — which include many major statewide education organizations — said it wouldn’t be fair to public school students, who all comply with the same standards for academic eligibility.

“It’s a fairness and equity issue,” said Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax Station).

The bill would let local school boards decide whether to allow home-schooled students to try out for their local team (to avoid families shopping around for the best team) and has provisions designed to prevent dropouts or students not academically eligible from skirting the rules. It passed the House last week and will go to the state Senate.

“Home-schooled students in Virginia would really like to have that choice,” said Amy Wilson, director of government affairs for the Organization of Virginia ­Homeschoolers.

Ken Tilley, the executive director of the Virginia High School League, said the bill would violate two of the league’s most long-standing and fundamental standards for eligibility: enrollment and academic standing.

“The resounding cry from our members” was that they should not support the bill, said Barbara Coyle, executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association. Liability for the schools and accountability were the big sticking points, she said. Members wondered how they could ensure that grading standards would be comparable for home-schoolers and public school students. 

Home-school advocates argue that they are required by Virginia law to document academic progress, and the bill spells out eligibility requirements, such as two consecutive years of home-schooling, before students can try out for teams.

But Steven Staples, executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said there are problems with the bill that can’t be ironed out: “I think there is a basic, fundamental disagreement.”

Besides, many opponents say, students always have the option of attending public school.

That might be what Sydney Bowman, a 12-year-old from Lucketts, will do to keep wrestling and playing lacrosse, although she would prefer to continue to be taught at home. In her case, girls’ wrestling teams are rare enough that there aren’t many options other than public school.

But even with the popularity of soccer, Micah Fitz said he’s having trouble finding a really demanding league. He can’t play for a private school this spring because those schools compete in the fall. His family is trying to find other teams within driving distance of their home in Bristow.

His mom, Terri Fitz, a former public school teacher from a family of public school teachers, said that although they support the local schools and love to cheer on the teams, they like the flexibility of home-schooling. She said Micah was able to study government this past year in the thick of the presidential election, for example, even though it wouldn’t normally be part of the curriculum for his age. 

Micah isn’t sure he could even make the Patriot High School team, he said. “I would have to play the best I could, give 100 percent, because it’s really difficult.”

But he wants the chance. 

“Now we’re looking at our options,” he said. “A lot of the options are really, really far away.”

One is close. His mom said that Micah and his younger brother Jonah always have the option to go to public school. “We reevaluate what's best for them every year. . . . But we’re pretty dedicated to being home-schooled.”

Laura Vozzella in Richmond contributed to this report.

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