A Sporting Chance for Home-Schoolers?

Public schools face growing pressures to allow participation on varsity teams. by SCOTT LAFEE

To hear some home-schoolers tell it, all they want is a sporting chance. But for many school administrators nationwide, the idea of home-schooled students participating in interscholastic athletics is no simple matter.


Indeed, this issue can be fraught with emotion and politics. It's a decision that involves volatile debate about privilege versus right and the consequences of choice. And sometimes it's an issue that can put a premature end to a superintendent's tenure.

"I've been in education for 28 years, and I've watched as demands have grown on the students who play sports," says Robert Shriver, athletic director for the Easton, Pa., Area School District. "Athletics is a privilege and students who play sports ought to have to earn it. That means being responsible. That means meeting the requirements of the school they attend: learning to deal with teachers, follow rules, meet the social and behavioral conditions required before they can go out and hit a baseball or shoot a basketball. Kids in public schools do that and it's not fair to permit other students to simply come in and play without having to meet the same conditions."

Shriver speaks from experience. In the last two years, the 7,500-student Easton district twice has faced entreaties from home-schooled children seeking to participate on high school sports teams.

In 1996, a home-schooled girl requested permission to play on the interscholastic softball team, but the Easton school board balked at the idea and battle lines soon developed with both points of view finding support. What followed were several noisy and emotional school board meetings.

"The home-schoolers were livid about the idea of rejection," Shriver says. "They wanted to know who we were to tell them how to conform."

To which others replied, according to Shriver: "Students in public schools have to make attendance standards, keep up their grades and participate in school functions to play sports. Home-schooled students do not. That's a double standard."

He adds: "As you can guess, the whole situation became pretty charged."

Eventually, the Easton board voted 6-3 to reject the home-schooler's petition to play softball. The girl's parents then promptly sued, arguing in part that as taxpaying citizens their daughter had a right to participate in publicly funded athletic programs.

Politics soon dominated the debate, Shriver says, with enormous pressures brought to bear upon board members. A majority of the board ultimately changed its mind and reversed the decision, deciding that home-schooled students could participate in public school athletic programs provided they met certain standards.

"We now have a pretty rigorous set of guidelines that each home-schooled athlete has to conform to," Shriver says. "We try to keep them in the mainstream as much as possible. There are weekly visits by teachers to validate that the student has passing grades in at least four major subjects. Plus parents are responsible for all transportation to campuses and points of departure for games."

Growing Demands
A decade ago, home-schooled students in interscholastic athletics wasn't much of an issue. Home-schooling in the 1980s was more an idea than a movement. Home-schoolers were few and isolated with little like-minded support.

But times have changed. In Arkansas, for example, there were fewer than 600 home-schooled students in 1985. Now, one home-schooling support group in the state claims more than 6,000 students are receiving their education at home.

In the 1980s, most states did not recognize home-schooling as a legitimate educational option. Now, at least 37 do, with laws on the books acknowledging the right of children to be formally educated at home.

More to the point, the estimated 1.5 million home-schooled students in the United States today are buttressed by a well-organized network of associations that avidly and vigorously promote home-schooling interests in school board meetings, state legislatures and courthouses across the country. And these groups, along with individual families, are pressing more and more for the right of home-schooled students to play public school sports. The implications for school leaders can be career threatening.

Three years ago, the superintendent in Falls Church, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., had her contract bought out, in part, due to her steadfast disagreement with the school board's decision to permit a home-schooled student to participate in extracurricular activities.

Impact of Charters
As the charter school movement spreads across the country, some expect to see similar petitions from high school students who attend charter schools that are too small to support their own after-school sports programs.

"Right now, the bulk of charter schools are elementary or schools designed for students at risk where athletics isn't necessarily a high priority," says Jon Schroeder, director of the Charter Friends National Network, a Minnesota-based project of the Center for Policy Studies and Hamline University in St. Paul which links state-level charter school organizations and associations. "But as more mainstream charter high schools come on line, more students will likely demand a range of extracurricular activities, including sports."

Indeed, some broad anecdotal evidence of individual charter schools dealing with the issue of athletic participation already exists. Schroeder has heard reports of large charter schools developing their own athletic programs, though these have tended to be more intramural or recreational in concept.

Other charter schools have hired outside help. One school in Phoenix, Schroeder says, contracts with a business to provide coaches and physical education training for its students. "Other schools, depending on the state and local school district, have cooperative relationships with the local school district so that charter school students can play on sports teams at the local public school," he says.

These charter school-public school relationships are sometimes formal, sometimes not, Schroeder adds.

Are They Entitled?
Does a right to play exist? The answer isn't easy or clear, says Robert Kanaby, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations in Kansas City, Mo.

"Across the country, it's a mixed bag," he says. "This is a growing issue. More and more kids want to play sports and there are mounting efforts by some groups to broaden that participation. I think there are 15 or 16 states, most of them in the West, that permit home-schoolers to play interscholastic sports, usually under certain conditions. But in other states, it's prohibited outright."

The NFSHS itself doesn't have a position on the subject, preferring to let each state athletic association deal with the topic as it sees fit. Not surprisingly, no consensus exists on how to handle the issue.

In California, for example, a home-schooled student can participate in public school athletics if the school district has a system for monitoring the quality of the home-schooler's education.

"We recognize, as most states do, that there are alternative forms of education," says Jack Hayes, executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation and a former superintendent. "Based on that philosophy, we allow for different types of programs to be the basis of a child's education.

"Our rule is that home-schooling is covered as independent study, which has been recognized in this state as a formal method of instruction for 20 years," he adds. "If the home-schooler is academically recognized by the district, if everything else is in order, the student is eligible to play sports."

According to Hayes, the California education code requires that students doing independent study meet periodically with a certificated teacher to monitor the student's academic progress.

"Basically, the process is left to the district. If a district says a home-schooled student isn't academically eligible for athletic participation, we let that be a district's choice. A district can make the rules stricter if it wants, but it can't make them more lenient. And so far, the system has worked reasonably well. We haven't had any serious problems. There were some hearings in the state a few years ago on the subject, but our rules stood up."

Litigation Ensues
f administrators in California are amenable to home-schoolers and other non-public school students playing interscholastic athletics, at least under prescribed guidelines, some of their peers elsewhere in the nation seem much less open to the notion.

Consider the 1995 case of a 7th-grade girl at a parochial school who wanted to play volleyball and basketball for the public high school in Conrad, Mont. The bylaws of the Montana High School Association, to which the Conrad school district belongs, state that eligible students must be regularly enrolled and in good standing at a member school. Under these criteria, the girl did not qualify because she attended a private school that did not belong to the state athletic association.

"So the school board denied her application and the parents sued," says Conrad's superintendent, Kurt Hilyard.

At trial, the attorney representing the girl argued that the Conrad district's denial was arbitrary and unreasonable, that state and federal laws protected the girl's right to an education at home but that the parents, as taxpayers, had a right to partake of at least some benefits of public education for their child.

The district countered, in part, that the girl and her parents waived her right to participate in public sports programs when they enrolled her in a non-public school. "Exclusion is her own preference," according to a summary of the case presented at the 1996 fall conference of the School Administrators of Montana. "Federal courts have held that those who elect to get an education elsewhere can't be heard to complain that the system is not open to them."

A federal judge agreed with the school district, declaring the girl's legal case to be flawed. Specifically, Judge Marc Buyske ruled that neither the U.S. Constitution nor Montana law provided a separate and distinct right to participate in extracurricular activities. Last year a five-member panel of the Montana Supreme Court upheld that rationale, unanimously declaring that private-school students are not absolutely entitled to access to public school offerings in the state.

The same thinking holds true for home-schooled students too, says Mary Kay Klimesh, a Chicago-based attorney who evaluated the issue for the Legal Handbook on Student Athletics, a publication of the Council of School Attorneys.

"If a private-school student can't do it, a home-schooled student can't either," Klimesh says.

Home-Schoolers' Fears
Oddly, the Montana case provoked little comment from the public, according to the superintendent. "There was almost no debate for or against," Hilyard says. "I think the people most interested were other school districts in the state."

As in California, the Montana High School Association leaves it to individual districts to decide whether non-public school students can play public school sports. Jim Haugen, executive director of the Montana association, says some private schools have in fact joined the association, allowing them to place teams in leagues that compete against public schools.

But home-schoolers remain a different and separate issue. Haugen says his association has fielded no recent requests by home-school athletes or their parents. The reason, he believes, is that participation in athletics would likely invite greater school district scrutiny of the home-schooled student's curriculum.

"Montana probably has one of the most open home-schooling statutes in the country," says Hilyard. "Right now all one has to do is register with the county superintendent. That's it. You just have to say your child is going to learn at home."

The prospect of public school districts overseeing a home-schooler's education is, of course, an anathema to its supporters, who commonly cite freedom in establishing curricula, pace of learning, values and control over social activities as the reasons for educating a youngster at home.

But a home-schooler almost invariably invites a school district's academic oversight if he or she desires to play interscholastic sports, a factor discussed in a recent newsletter by the Wisconsin Parents Association. Indeed, that home-schooling advocacy group concluded that playing on a school sports team might not be worth the intrusion.

"When you ask for permission to play sports, it's almost a given that the school district, which is usually governed by an association, is going to have rules and regulations about academic eligibility," says Larry Kaseman, executive director of the WPA, based in Madison, Wis.

Kaseman's group believes that setting a precedent for public school regulation of home-schooled athletes would lead to increased regulation of all home-schoolers. "We're entering an arena where a lot of people have long histories of wanting to make sure certain tickets get punched. No state has reached a point that there isn't something more that they would require of home-schoolers."

Wide Opposition
he Kansas bill died in a legislative committee. Musselman hopes it does not come back.

Public school administrators and athletic directors have voiced similar opinions in New York, where the state Board of Regents expressly prohibits sports participation by students who do not meet strict eligibility rules.

"Sports is a privilege and as such, it's something that can only be earned by students who attend a public school in a member district," says Lloyd L. Mott, assistant director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. "Plus, athletics is all about teamwork, training, being part of a school atmosphere. A student who is not enrolled in school misses much of that."

In Milford, Conn., last year, a 14-year-old girl who was being schooled at home asked to play on the local high school basketball team. The Milford Public Schools denied permission because the student was not enrolled in school and therefore not entitled to participate in activities of the school.

Superintendent Mary Jo Kramer says the district relied on statewide regulations in rejecting her request. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference prohibits participation by any student whose academic progress is not under the direct supervision of a member school.

"Connecticut does not have state regulations requiring any kind of obligation by home-schooling parents that they teach their children a certain way," says Mike Savage, executive director of the CIAC. "They can do it under completely different conditions, with completely different standards, than a public school. There's no state mandate that they meet or maintain any of the standards of public education."

Kramer cited other reasons as well. "Our policy precludes home-schoolers from participating in any kind of extracurricular activity. Why should they be entitled to these benefits without the price of membership, particularly if we're talking about possibly displacing a student who has followed the rules, who has met the standards? Why should that child lose a place on a sports team to someone unwilling to be a part of the whole organization?

"We don't pick and choose who participates. I know that some districts do let students not enrolled in a school participate in things like band, but not in more competitive programs like basketball. We say that if you aren't enrolled, no participation. Period. We aren't the recreation department. We are the public school system."

Despite such stands, the issue seems unlikely to go away given the increase in home-schooled students nationally and a charter school movement that is growing even faster. Home-school groups and individuals continue to lobby for greater access to public programs, and frequently they find a sympathetic ear with legislators. In states such as Kansas, the state legislators are pushing for greater accommodations for home-schoolers.

"My children go to public schools. I believe in public education. But I think a wise school district allows youngsters from outside to participate in athletics," says Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota and an ardent supporter of charter schools. "I think public education needs as many friends as it can reasonably obtain."

Consequences of Choice
Educators are not unaware of such thinking, but they argue that some fundamental principles apply here.

"This is an issue of choice," says Mott of New York State's athletic association. "Parents make choices. And with these choices come consequences. If I decide to send my child to a private school or keep them home to teach, then I must accept the results of that action. I may have to pay tuition. My child probably won't have the benefit of playing on the school team. Parents and children have to weigh these pros and cons, make their choice and live with it."

Meanwhile in Easton, Pa., the school district has had only one other request from a home-schooled student seeking to play sports since its emotional squabble and about-face decision-making by the school board in 1996. In the more recent instance, a girl quit the school softball team after two days of practice.

For his part, Shriver, who is the athletic director in Easton, remains opposed to the idea. "What really concerns me is that the door is now open for home-schoolers to opt into any public school program without having to do what every other student has to. What happens when someone says they want to join a computer lab or take an advanced-course or sing in the choral group without actually attending any other classes? It will cause chaos. How do we keep records, maintain class sizes or project future budgets when we don't know who might be here?"

Scott LaFee is a writer with the San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: scott.lafee@uniontrib.com.

For more see Relying on Law and the Lawyer by Scott LaFee.