Giving Districts Final Say on Home-Schoolers’ Play

by TIMOTHY M. ALLWEIN

As the number of students being schooled at home increases across the nation, the issue of whether school districts have any obligation to provide services or opportunities to these students to participate in district-sponsored activities has become a popular item of discussion in state capitals.

In Pennsylvania, one issue that has received a great deal of attention over the last few years is whether the state should require school districts to permit home-schooled students to participate in extracurricular activities. The interest in this issue is not surprising. Pennsylvania’s home-schooled population continues to grow steadily and extracurricular activities, especially high school sports, are an integral part of many communities around the state.

In our state, 240 of the 501 school districts allow home-schooled students to participate in extracurricular activities to some extent, according to a 1999-2000 survey by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Most allow participation by all students in all activities, some limit participation to either elementary or secondary students, and some confine participation to activities not governed by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, the body that oversees interscholastic athletics.

Last year I testified before Pennsylvania’s House Education Committee on a bill that would have required school districts to allow any home-schooled student to participate in extracurricular activities, including sports, musical ensembles and theatrical productions. As with all legislative proposals dealing with home schooling in Pennsylvania, the bill elicited much attention on both sides. While it never advanced beyond the committee, similar measures have been introduced in the new legislative session and the debate is continuing. In fact, an amendment similar to the bill described above was inserted into an unrelated education bill and approved by the House. It is unclear what future, if any, the proposal has in the Senate.

Contentious Debate
The trouble with such proposals is that they tend to paint the issue in black and white. School boards and communities where this debate has played itself out, sometimes contentiously, know differently. At the heart of the discussion are the issues of eligibility and fairness.

Pennsylvania’s school code extends broad authority and discretion to school boards over the governance of extracurricular activities, including the authority to establish eligibility guidelines for participation. Most school districts set their standards based on grades, attendance and behavior. Additionally, the state athletic association has its own set of guidelines, including the student’s age. Ultimately, school boards are responsible for ensuring all students are eligible for the activities in which they participate. The extent to which they are comfortable that a home-schooled student meets the eligibility guidelines and that eligibility can be verified plays an important part in determining whether boards adopt a universal participation policy.

I contend the best way for school districts to work this issue out is through discussions with home-schooling parents at the local level. It would be difficult for the state legislature to write a law that takes into account the many eligibility criteria employed by school districts and the state athletic association. Moreover, a state mandate on this issue replaces the judgment of the school board and the district leadership with that of the legislature.

Fair Play
A second but closely related consideration is fairness. Some school board members have a difficult time opening up the district’s extracurricular activities to students who, in their mind, have an unfair advantage. They argue that the inherent flexibility of home schooling allows students additional time to practice or rehearse that students in the public schools do not have. The potential for legal action by parents of students who attend the school and lose a spot in the school play or a starting position on an athletic team is very real to many districts.

Here again, boards and district administrators must be satisfied that the issue has been worked out in a satisfactory manner before making their decision. This is another issue that cannot be adequately addressed by state legislation. Instead, the resolution lies in discussions between school boards, home- schooling parents, students, coaches and other activity leaders.

At the state hearing, I was impressed by the testimony of a woman who took it upon herself and a few other home-schooling parents to bring the issue to their local school board. They argued passionately that their students be allowed to participate in the school district’s extracurricular programs. While I do not remember all the details of her testimony, she was able to convince the board that adopting a policy allowing home-schooled students to participate in after school activities would be beneficial to the school district and to the students. She was able to assure the district that the home-schooling community would cooperate on the issue of eligibility. And because her children already knew many of the students in the district’s schools, they and their coaches and parents readily accepted the idea of allowing them to participate in the district’s activities.

This strikes me as the best way to resolve this tough issue. State mandates that grant access to extracurricular activities remove the accountability of local board members. Furthermore, it robs communities of the opportunity for open and frank discussion on an important issue.

Tim Allwein is assistant executive director of governmental and member relations for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, 774 Limekiln Road, New Cumberland, PA 17070. E-mail: tim.allwein@psba.org