There are times, many times in fact, that Erika Tucker gets a little lonely as she shoots hoops in the driveway of her home in Arnold, Md.
While many of her friends and teammates from the Chesapeake Bay Hurricanes 16-and-under American Athletic Union squad practice with their respective high school teams, Tucker, a home-schooled 16-year-old with an interest in basketball and horticulture, occupies her time with her studies and solo work on her jump shot.
"When you get to high school age, most players that have the skills, they are playing on the high school team," said Tucker, who gets her basketball fix by playing for an Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks team in the winter. "I have always wanted to play high school basketball. I would get better coaching and training and stuff. When AAU season comes around, it's always a relief because I am getting back to the kind of way I want to be playing."
Maryland law prohibits the state's approximately 19,400 home-schooled students from participating in extracurricular activities at public high schools, but a bill assigned to the Ways and Means Committee in the House of Delegates would change that.
The bill, which could be voted on by the committee as early as Friday, would allow home-schooled students the opportunity to try out or join sports teams, drama programs and other student organizations at public high schools as long as public school students are not prevented from participation by their involvement.
Del. George C. Edwards, a Republican representing Garrett and Allegany counties in western Maryland, introduced the bill in January after being approached by constituents who teach their children at home for religious reasons. Edwards said when a home-schooled student reaches high school, the athletic opportunities outside high school are substantially diminished.
"You are telling a kid who grew up with his buddies and played whatever with them all the time until finally he got in the ninth grade, 'You can't do that anymore,' " Edwards said. "Some of these people would just like to be able to do that."
The states bordering Maryland -- Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware -- and the District of Columbia do not allow home-schooled students to participate in extracurricular activities. But such laws have been adopted in a dozen states, including Oregon, which became one of the first to allow home-schoolers access to extracurricular activities in 1994.
In Maryland, there are opportunities for home-schooled students to participate in athletics during their high school years, but they are few and far between.
The Christian Home Educators Network based in Ellicott City fields several sports teams, including cross-country, lacrosse, boys' basketball, girls' volleyball, boys' soccer, baseball and softball.
There are also several private schools, such as Arlington Baptist in Baltimore and Riverdale Baptist in Prince George's County, that allow home-schoolers to play on their sports teams, but for Tucker, whose family resides near Annapolis in Anne Arundel County, there were no such opportunities nearby.
"I would love the opportunity to just play high school ball," said Tucker, a 6-foot junior post player. "It would give me the chance to be on the team. I just want the chance to try. If I can't make it, I can't make it. I still get the option of doing so."
The bill has drawn criticism from public school administrators and coaches, who worry about its effect on the enforcement of eligibility rules, potential recruiting problems and equity.
"It comes down to a fairness issue," said Ned Sparks, the executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. "In order to represent a school, you ought to go to it. You have to be a student in order to participate. It's not like a club team or a recreational team. They have those things and you can be whatever you want to be and not go to school."
In fact, one of the basic factors in determining eligibility is attendance. At all MPSSAA schools, students are required to maintain a minimum grade-point average, be registered at the school and attend class.
"If we don't actually have someone participating at the school and registered, I think the whole framework of what our eligibility is based on is going to be eroded," said Don Disney, Howard County's coordinator of athletics. "That goes for everything. What do you base eligibility on?"
Proponents of the Maryland bill and other similar legislation counter by saying home-school families pay taxes that support public schools and should be afforded the opportunity to play on the teams they help support.
"One argument that is heard frequently is . . . as a matter of equity, [home-schooled students] should have access to those teams," said Scott Woodruff, an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association. "It just increases their options."
In Oregon, officials report few complaints concerning participation by home-schoolers.
"There were some concerns when it was initially proposed and adopted, but the reality in the last eight years is it's gone pretty well," said Tom Welter, executive director of the Oregon School Activities Association. "I would say at this point in time it's not a major issue people are worried about. We have had it long enough and it's gone very smoothly."
Since home-schoolers' grades are hard to compare with public school students, Oregon uses standardized testing at the end of each school year to monitor home-schoolers' academic eligibility.
Woodruff said he had never heard of abuse of the system, such as a public school student with grade problems switching to home-schooling to remain eligible.
"Generally speaking, a home-schooled student who wants to participate in activities in public schools has to pass specified tests to maintain their academic standing," Woodruff said.
Edwards did not specify how the system would be implemented in Maryland, but said he trusts educators to maintain its integrity.
In Oregon, home-schooled students are bound to play for schools within their normal attendance boundary, and Welter said he has seldom heard complaints about traditional students being displaced by home-schoolers on teams, which is a major worry of Maryland administrators.
"What if students coming from the outside that weren't members of the school could and would displace kids that were members of the school?" Sparks said. "Whether they displaced them on the team, or in the starting lineup, it's hard to explain to a kid, 'Hey, you go to school here, follow all the regulations and rules, but sorry, someone else came in and took your place.' "
At Arlington Baptist, a small private school in Baltimore County, there have been no such problems since the school began operating a home-school umbrella nine years ago. The school charges $332 per family for home-schoolers to play on sports teams.
Shirley Kemp, the school's girls' basketball coach, said there were no problems when Ellicott City home-schooler Faith Happel, a 5-11 junior forward, joined the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland C-Conference team at the start of this season when the CHEN girls' basketball team folded.
"God is most important in my life, but basketball is second. I love basketball," said Happel, who was named to the MIAA C all-conference team after averaging 22.3 points and 20.2 rebounds for the league champion. "My life would be very different without it. I don't know what I would have done if I couldn't have played this year."