The Conundrum of Home-Schoolers in Sports

by Paul Riede

Should home-schoolers be allowed to participate on public school sports teams?
When the question came up a few years ago in the tiny Crab Orchard School District in Marion, Ill., it was a no-brainer.

“We asked around and nobody had a problem with it,” Superintendent Derek Hutchins said.

The board of education of the 400-student school district passed a resolution allowing the handful of local home-schooled children to participate. Hutchins said the move helped the district’s sports teams while showing the home-schoolers the advantages of the public schools.

“Our philosophy is that if they get around our kids, eventually they’ll come to school,” he said.

If only it were that simple.

Buffalo’s No Admittance
Most states ban home-schoolers from participating, according to a review of enrollment rules by the National Association of State Boards of Education’s Commission on High School Athletics in an Era of Reform. At high schools where competition for roster spots and playing time on interscholastic teams is fierce, administrators and parents worry that students who attend the school could be pushed aside by those who don’t.

In states allowing home-schooler participation, there is the question of eligibility: How does the public school determine whether the home-schooled student meets the district’s academic and attendance criteria for participation? It’s an area that many administrators don’t care to wade into.

Dave Thomas, director of athletics, physical education and health for the Buffalo, N.Y., Public Schools, said more than two dozen home-schooled or charter school students have sought to play on the district’s teams in the past year. He has refused them all, pointing to the district’s simple, no-exceptions policy. “If they want to play, they have to attend Buffalo public schools,” Thomas said.

Home-schooling organizations don’t want much to do with the issue, either. The Home School Legal Defense Association is officially neutral on the question. Spokesman Ian Slatter said there isn’t a strong legal argument for forcing public schools to allow participation by home-schoolers. Courts have repeatedly ruled that participation in school sports is a privilege, not a right.

But arguments that have failed in the courts are increasingly gaining ground in state legislatures, which are feeling more and more pressure from the burgeoning home-school community. A November memo from Slatter’s association noted that 15 states force public schools to allow home-schoolers access to classes or sports. Several others are considering such legislation.

Pennsylvania opened its public schools’ interscholastic sports teams and other extracurricular activities to home-schoolers effective Jan. 1. When Gov. Ed Rendell signed the bill into law in November — flanked by nearly 40 home-schoolers and their parents — he used a moral argument rather than a legal one.

“To deny these girls and boys the opportunity is wrong,” he declared.

Robert A. Frick, president of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said the association took no stand on the issue and the new law has had no major impact on schools so far. But, he added, as superintendent of the Lampeter-Strasburg School District near Lancaster, he personally opposed the move to open the door to home-schoolers.

“I believe very devoutly that it was not appropriate,” he said. “You’re either a part of the school district or you’re not.”

Nonetheless, he said he is complying. There are about 130 home-schooled children in his 3,300-student district, and so far the change has not imposed any hardship. That’s partly because most of the home-schoolers are in the early grades so the impact on high school sports and activities has been minimal, he said.

Slatter warns that increasing participation in athletics by home-schoolers carries some dangers. When allowed to participate, he said, home-schoolers must provide test scores or periodic academic reports to the public school that go beyond the state’s pre-existing home-school statute. His memo on the subject warns: “Taking government money or services almost always invites government control.”

Guidance for Districts
In its 2004 report, the National Association of State Boards of Education’s Commission on High School Athletics in an Era of Reform recommended that state boards of education review their states’ statutes on the issue and develop guidelines for districts that allow home-schoolers to play.

It suggests that schools could use state test scores to determine eligibility or that home-school teachers and public schools could develop other, mutually acceptable ways to demonstrate that a student is making satisfactory academic progress.

In states without laws on the issue, the decision on whether to allow home-schooler participation is generally left up to local school boards. The local boards often defer to state athletic associations, which have not traditionally been accommodating to home-schoolers.

The University Interscholastic League, which serves as the governing body for interscholastic athletics in Texas, sees little reason to champion the home-schoolers’ cause. A survey of member schools found 97 percent opposed home-schoolers’ participation in school sports, UIL Athletics Coordinator Mark Cousins said.

There remains resistance in some state legislatures as well. A South Carolina bill that would open the door for home-schoolers to play has been bottled up in the state senate, where opponents cite the familiar argument: If students wish to participate, they are welcome to enroll. Maryland’s General Assembly has rejected three such bills in the past five years, citing academic eligibility questions.

Nonetheless, the trend nationwide is clearly toward allowing more participation, and Slatter said that’s likely to continue.

“As there are more and more home-schoolers, and more and more students staying in home schools all the way through high school, you’re going to see more and more wanting access to athletic programs,” he said.