by Leslie Nathaniel, VaHomeschoolers Vice President
Homeschool Access to Public School Sports: Getting Closer to the Finish Line
On Tuesday , September 6, 2011, VaHomeschoolers Board President Parrish Mort, Board Vice President Leslie Nathaniel, and VaHomeschoolers lobbyist Scott Price testified at a hearing on House Bill 2395.
HB2395 is the latest in a series of bills over the years that would create access to public school interscholastic sports for homeschoolers. The bill was introduced in the last legislative session by Del. Rob Bell and was passed by for further study during a House Education committee meeting in January 2011. A subcommittee was charged with the task of researching homeschool sports access and developing a report and a recommendation; the September 6 hearing was the first step in the process.
Under current law, the Virginia High School League (VHSL) is the governing body for all Virginia public school interscholastic competitions. Although VHSL governs more than just sports competition (e.g., debate and marching band), HB2395 only addresses access to sports. The VHSL defines player eligibility and the rules currently limit access to only public school students. The bill creates homeschool sports access and attempts to create equitable eligibility standards for homeschool players. This bill is opposed by VHSL.
The hearing was chaired by Del. Robert Tata and attended by subcommittee members Del. David Bulova, Del. Thomas Greason, Del. Jennifer McClellan and Del. Thomas Rust. Chairman Tata had previously requested that staff counsel review other state’s code to determine if homeschool sports access was allowed and how they access was implemented. He opened the September 6 hearing by asking staff counsel Jessica Eades to present her findings.
Ms. Eades’ report stated that twenty states currently allowed full access. In most instances, these states use the same standards/requirements as their homeschool laws for the standards for participation. In some of these states, homeschoolers who wish to participate in public school sports must be dually enrolled in the public schools. Four states allow qualified access limiting participation to those approved by the principal or school board; just five states have case law (not statute) prohibiting access.
After the presentation by staff counsel, Chairman Tata invited Del. Bell to speak to his bill. Del. Bell reiterated that homeschoolers were not asking for special treatment or a guaranteed spot on the team but simply a chance to try out; that he had tried in good faith to address all the eligibility issues of concern; and that we had repeatedly attempted to work out compromise language with VHSL only to be unsuccessful each time.
Next Chairman Tata allowed six people to speak in favor of the bill. VaHomeschoolers expressed their support of the bill and their availability to answer any questions. Additionally, three very articulate homeschooled athletes shared their personal stories and why they felt strongly about the bill. Marcia Conner, a private school high school coach and homeschool mother, shared her unique perspective as a coach and as a friend to public school coaches. Several parents also spoke in support of homeschool access, including VaHomeschoolers Vice President Leslie Nathaniel.
VHSL was next called to the podium and continued their long-standing opposition to the bill. Additionally, the Virginia School Board Association and Association of School Superintendents spoke in opposition. Their arguments focused primarily on a belief that homeschool student participation would be unfair because homeschool students do not have to meet the same academic requirements as do public school students; they believe there is no way to create an equal playing field in regards to academics and discipline.
Subcommittee Responses and Action
Throughout the hearing, the subcommittee asked questions of those that testified. Most were seeking a clearer understanding of the issues and current situation. Others were looking for areas of compromise. Their overall main concern was ensuring equitable standards for participation.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the subcommittee asked the Virginia Department of Education to provide more information on homeschooling law. Del. Bell asked staff counsel to bring specific examples of how other states had addressed concerns like those expressed by the VHSL. Chairman Tata said that another hearing would be held in October and possibly a third hearing in November. The dates for these hearings have not been set.
VaHomeschoolers Position and Additional Thoughts
VaHomeschoolers supports HB2395 as each year a majority of our members have expressed a desire for access to public school sports and extracurricular activities. We remain cautiously optimistic that this bill will eventually become law, but we do not anticipate that happening in the coming legislative session. A form of this bill has been presented annually for many years and VaHomeschoolers has been working directly with VHSL for no less than a decade to bring about these changes. Progress has been slow but there is more support for this bill than ever.
However, this bill also presents some hazards as does any bill that deals with homeschooling law. Homeschooling and homeschool law are under more scrutiny with this bill than with many other homeschool bills. Committee members have asked for a side by side review of requirements for graduation from public school and graduation from home education. They want to know more about the educational assessments used by homeschoolers and whether these assessments could verify successful completion of five academic subjects (VHSL has a requirement that students take and pass a minimum of five academic subjects to maintain eligibility). They are considering what testing homeschoolers could take that would be comparable to public school students.
As homeschoolers, we are aware there is no apple-to-apple comparison of public school academics and homeschool academics. This does not make one necessarily superior to the other, but simply represents two different approaches for a similar desired outcome.
What VaHomeschoolers recognizes is that getting access to public school sports (by passing HB2395 or a future bill) will probably require homeschooled athletes who want to play on public school teams to produce more evidence of academic achievement or progress than is currently required. This might mean testing twice a year or having parents sign sworn affidavits that the student is taking and passing five academic subjects. These are only examples of possible requirements; no specific criteria have been defined at this time. VaHomeschoolers feels these examples would be acceptable forms of compromise.
Areas where VaHomeschoolers is not willing to negotiate would include the idea of imposing the SOLs as a requirement for sports access. VaHomeschoolers will oppose any form of a bill that tries to impose SOL testing as a requirement for homeschoolers. We would also oppose any new legislation that might attempt to change the current homeschool statute to add new testing standards, graduation standards or any other additional requirements for all homeschooled students. We are not living in fear of these actions but remain pragmatic about the possibility of a legislator thinking these actions would be a good thing. We will be attending each upcoming hearing and committee meeting, as well as meeting with legislators individually. We believe there is compromise language that can be developed that will work for all parties and that homeschool sports access will be a reality some day in the near future.
We thank all the families who traveled to Richmond on a very rainy morning to attend the hearing. We hope that you found the experience interesting and educational and that you recognized the value of your presence in chambers. We appreciate you joining us and hope to see you at future hearings.
Should you have any comments, suggestions, or questions regarding this legislation, please contact us at VaHomeschoolers Government Affairs.
How You Can Help
Contact your legislators and ask their position on HB2395. Tell them why it is important to you and offer to provide them with further information on the bill if that are not very familiar with the issue.*
Need information on how to contact your legislators? Visit Contacting My Legislator
Attend the next hearing, whether just to show your support by your presence in chambers or to testify
Encourage others to contact their legislators and to attend the hearings.
Speak to the local high school coach, principal and athletic director at your public school.
Contact VaHomeschoolers with any news you may have regarding the issue, people you may have found in support or specific legislators who appear to be on the fence.
* VaHomeschoolers is happy to provide supporting facts and arguments to any interested party. Email VaHomeschoolers Government Affairs.
Things to Remember When Advocating
Know your facts. Become familiar with the bill and the arguments for and against the bill.
“You gather more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Approach even those opposed in an affable manner. You will be more effective at getting someone to listen to your side if they do not feel attacked.
Be succinct with legislators. They have many important issues and do not have time or the attention span to listen to a long presentation.
Don’t argue “we pay taxes.” We know from experience that this argument does not carry weight and for many legislators immediately causes them to dismiss what else you are saying. Everyone pays taxes for lots of things they don’t or can’t take advantage of. This is not a unique or effective argument.
Be polite. Even if the party you are talking to is not polite, your courtesy is important to our united efforts.
The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers is a non-profit public charity with 501(c)(3) status; your donation is tax-deductible to the extent provided by law. A financial statement is available from the Virginia Division of Consumer Affairs upon request.