February 17, 2012

Let’s say there’s a boy named Johnny who attends basketball games at his neighborhood high school. His older brother goes there, as did his big sister. He attends the school’s summer basketball camp and is counting the seasons until he can try out for the team. For years, his mom has left work early to run the concession stand at the gym on game nights.

Now spring ahead a few years. Johnny attends that high school, knows most of the teachers by name, has learned what cafeteria food to avoid, can identify his locker by smell and has designs on a blue-eyed brunette in biology.

Johnny’s school is his life. Always has been. He’s not a just a member of the community — he’s a member of his school community.

That marked distinction seems lost on some Virginia state legislators. The House of Delegatespassed a bill this month — the “Tebow bill,” named for the home-schooled Denver Broncos QB — that would enable home-schooled students to play sports at the same public high schools their parents won’t let them attend. As early as this coming week, a Senate committee may consider the legislation, which has the backing of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell. If the bill becomes law, home-schooled students around the state could take roster spots and playing time from countless Johnnys — children whose lives are defined by their school and school activities.

Imagine the sting Johnny will feel when he is cut from the basketball team and a boy who is home-schooled makes the squad. The new kid — quite likely a nice, intelligent, hard-working boy who himself is in an awkward position — might not be able to name a teacher. He might not be able to find the cafeteria. But what he can find is Johnny’s spot in the lineup, no matter that his lone affiliation with the school takes place after classes are over.

As I pointed out four years ago, when this issue rightfully died in committee: If you’re not eligible to wear a cap and gown, you shouldn’t be eligible to wear a cap and glove. If your only mention in the yearbook is in the caption of a team photo, then you’re not a part of a school’s fabric. And if high school fields and gyms are extensions of the classroom, a home-schooled student has no more right to elbow Johnny off of a team’s roster than he does to kick him out of his seat in history class.

Virginia’s bill isn’t novel — about half of the country allows home-schooled students to participate in public school activities. And the legislation’s proponents say parents shouldn’t worry; not only does the bill allow jurisdictions to ban home-schoolers from public school teams if they choose, but home-schoolers can magically disappear into public high school sports programs. As Parrish Mort, president of the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers, explains: “We’re really talking about a very small number of students.”

She may be right. According to Virginia Department of Education figures, there were 24,682 students in 2010-11, including 6,008 of high-school age, who would meet the bill’s definition of being home-schooled; there are 376,155 public high school students in Virginia this school year.

Meanwhile, other states have discovered that some of the hand-wringing associated with allowing home-schoolers to suit up is largely unwarranted. Last year, Tennessee implemented a policy that allows home-schoolers to play public school sports. Since they don’t have to meet the same eligibility criteria as enrolled students, the policy enables their academic progress to be monitored. So far, only 15 home-schooled students are playing public school sports — none in football or basketball. This is the first school year that Tennessee has allowed home-schoolers to play, so they’re just now collecting data.

But according to Bernard Childress, executive director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, just a few students have been denied spots on their schools’ teams. “It really hasn’t been a big issue,” Childress said. “This is what we were told by some of the states that we surveyed prior to our implementation.”

That may be so — for now. But if the Virginia bill passes, more home-schoolers would have an opening to squeeze out more public school students. Perhaps a greater number of families would opt for home-schooling if their children were able to try out for public school sports teams, further compromising school spirit. Johnny would be relegated to suiting up for a recreation center team if he wanted to continue playing basketball — a hardship apparently considered too onerous for the home-schooled student.

And if it’s frowned upon for a public school family to transfer a child to another school for athletic purposes, why should it be okay for a home-schooling family to come knocking on the school’s door strictly to play sports when that student is not even in the school system?

That’s the point the bill’s backers miss when proffering their most common argument: that home-schooling families are taxpayers who deserve access to the public schools they choose not to attend but still help fund. Can’t they see that those taxes aren’t a gym membership at the local high school? These are school teams. When you put on a uniform, you’re not representing Little Rocky Run, you’re representing Centreville High School. You’re not representing Ashburn Farm, you’re representing Stone Bridge High School.

You’re true to your school, not your subdivision or high-rise. That’s why Arlington County high school athletes do not wear “Arlington” on their chests. They wear the name of their alma mater — “Wakefield,” “Washington-Lee” or “Yorktown” — because each school has its own traditions, sensibilities and identity.

Identifying with the local high school is common in small towns, where the school is the hub of the community. But that affiliation can be just as strong in a large suburban area. It provides a well-defined sliver of the world within an amorphous region.

And you can bet that each school has its share of Johnnys — proud students in good standing who can make a greater case against the Virginia bill’s fairness than home-schooling families can make for it.

williamsp@washpost.com

Preston Williams is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.

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