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Making a Public Case Against Home-Schooled Athletes

Thursday, February 7, 2008

As Aesop's fables for the cynical age, "Seinfeld" can provide insight into just about any life situation, even the ongoing debate about whether home-schooled students should be allowed to play on public high school sports teams.

There's an episode in which a floundering George Costanza is trying to figure out what career to pursue after quitting his real estate job. He hits upon sports broadcaster.

"Well," skeptical pal Jerry says, "they tend to give those jobs to ex-ballplayers and people that are, you know, in broadcasting."

"Well, that's really not fair," George replies.

The joke is, of course it's fair. Just as it's fair for state high school athletic associations to prohibit home-schooled students from competing on public high school teams because they're not, you know, public high school students.

Parents who choose to home-school do so for a variety of reasons: because their child is ahead or behind academically, religious beliefs, family considerations or dissatisfaction with local schools. Whatever the reason, they have chosen to bypass the extracurricular activities that the local public school offers, including sports.

Public high school uniforms don't have the names of neighborhoods or school districts on them. They have the names of schools. Being an area resident doesn't make you a representative of the school. Going to that school makes you a representative.

If you're ineligible to walk across the stage in your cap and gown, then you should be ineligible to walk on the field with your cap and glove.

Turns out, though, that more of the country is taking a Costanza view when it comes to home-schoolers suiting up for sports. According to the Loudoun County-based Home School Legal Defense Association, 15 states allow home-schoolers to compete on public high school teams, with a steady trickle of states opening their programs in recent years, said Chris Klicka, senior counsel for the organization. Some other states allow local school divisions to set policies.

Maryland, the District and Virginia have resisted accepting home-schooled students on their teams, but a bill came up in the Virginia General Assembly last week that would have forced the Virginia High School League to allow home-schoolers to participate in sports at public high schools. The bill died in the House Education Committee.

The VHSL was concerned enough in the preceding days, however, to distribute an e-mail with information on how to contact state representatives. After House Bill 375 failed to gain traction, the VHSL sent out another e-mail saying, "We appreciate the efforts of all who contacted their personal delegate and senator to express their opinions and support of VHSL athletics and activities."

So, the issue is on the minds of the public high school brass, and some area counties allow home-schoolers to take up to two classes or join school clubs. Sports could be next.

The cause has a high-profile public face: University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner and the first sophomore to win the award. Tebow was home-schooled in Florida but played for his local public school team, Nease High in Ponte Vedra, where he was a Parade all-American. Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor also was home-schooled when he played for a public school team in Pennsylvania.

The Tim Tebow Act," similar to the failed measure in Virginia, was proposed in Alabama last year. It, too, failed to make it out of committee, but it was to be reintroduced at the legislative session that began this week.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, there are 20,694 home-schooled students in the state this school year, kindergarten through 12th grade, a gain of more than 3,000 students in three years. There are 3,445 home-schooled students in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties combined this school year.

The most recent figures available for Maryland are from 2004-05, when there were 23,746 home-schooled students, including a state-high 3,904 from Prince George's County and more than 2,000 each from Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties.

High school sports are supposed to be an extension of the classroom. You can't stiff-arm the public school's curriculum, administration and teachers and then expect to roll into the parking lot at 3:15 every day for practice like you're going to Gold's Gym for a workout. That's playing time or a roster spot that belongs to a regular student.

If public school parents are discouraged from transferring their children for athletic reasons, then students who aren't even in the school system shouldn't show up just for athletics. For many sports, the home-schooled student has other options, including home-school teams or leagues, rec leagues and church leagues. Some private schools allow home-schoolers to play.

Public high school athletes have to meet standards in regard to attendance, grades and behavior. If your punishment is being sent to your room and not to the principal's office, then a coach or school cannot monitor whether a player should be eligible. And, as Alabama school officials pointed out, a rogue coach could cajole his academically challenged star player into being home-schooled just to preserve his eligibility.

The main argument cited by those in favor of allowing home-schoolers to compete for public school teams is that the home-school parents are taxpayers, too. Continuing in that vein, the parents might be saving the school division money by not sending their kids to public schools.

Fine. But there are plenty of residents without kids. They're paying taxes, too, but they can't expect to walk in off the street and have access to the school facilities. Residents pay taxes for parks, libraries, roads and hospitals that they might never use, but their community is better off for having those services.

The Home School Legal Defense Association does not take a stand on the issue of home-schoolers playing in public schools, Klicka said, because there's no consensus in the home-school community.

Granting home-schoolers greater access to public schools would result in more governmental meddling into home schools, which most home-schooling parents do not want.

If we think long enough, we probably could come up with a "Seinfeld" analogy for that, too.

Varsity Letter is a weekly column about high school sports in the Washington area.

E-mail Preston Williams at williamsp@washpost.com.

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