by Amy Wilson, Director of Government Affairs
Sports Access Options Discussed by Special Subcommittee
On Tuesday, October 4, 2011, members of the Virginia House Education Committee’s Special Subcommittee met for the second in a series of three working hearings to investigate options for implementing sports access for homeschooled students proposed in H.B. 2395. (To read about the first hearing, held last month, see the September 15, 2011 Legislative Report) The purpose of this hearing was to consider a variety of possible options for enacting homeschool sports access and to collect background information for subcommittee members’ consideration. VaHomeschoolers President, Parrish Mort, Vice President, Leslie Nathaniel, and Director of Government Affairs, Amy Wilson, were all in attendance.
Options Presented by Legislative Staff
Legislative staff proposed four possibilities for the subcommittee’s consideration and discussion:
I. The Virginia High School League (VHSL) could voluntarily amend its rules to allow homeschooled students to participate in public school sports programs.
II. The subcommittee could recommend legislation requiring schools to allow homeschooled students to participate, provided they meet some modified version of VHSL’s “Take Five, Pass Five” academic eligibility rule. This might include proof of grades in correspondence courses or online programs or evidence of achievement via standardized testing that might differ from that required under the Home Instruction Statute.
III. The subcommittee could recommend legislation requiring schools to allow all homeschooled students to participate in high school sports programs, as long as they are meeting existing requirements for home school instruction, with additional rules establishing a waiting period for students who recently began homeschooling and limiting participation to a student’s assigned public school according to local school division rules.
IV. The subcommittee could recommend legislation allowing homeschooled students to participate at the discretion of the local school division. This option could include elements of options II or III above.
At the hearing, subcommittee members Del. Robert Tata (R-Virginia Beach), Del. David Bulova (D-Fairfax), Del. Thomas Greason (R-Loudoun) and Del. Thomas Rust (R-Fairfax and Loudoun) were in attendance; Del. Jennifer McClellan (D-Henrico) was absent. The subcommittee’s discussion during this hearing focused on collecting information related to one of the main sticking points in enacting homeschool sports access: determining a fair and reasonable method whereby homeschooled students can demonstrate their academic eligibility. Public school athletes must meet the Virginia High School League’s “Take Five, Pass Five” rule in order to participate in sports; under this rule, they must be enrolled and receiving passing or better grades in at least five academic subjects.
Michelle Vucci, Director of Policy for the Virginia Department of Education, briefed the subcommittee on the requirements of the Home Instruction Statute and the differences in graduation requirements for public school students as compared to homeschooled students. Scott Woodruff, Senior Counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association, testifying neither for nor against the bill, described approaches taken to enact homeschool sports access in a number of other states. Del. Rob Bell (R-Charlottesville), the bill’s sponsor, urged subcommittee members to keep in mind that that academic freedom is central to many families’ choice to homeschool, and that rules for sports access should balance this principle with the need to establish that homeschooled students meet academic eligibility requirements similar to those placed on public school students.
A variety of options were discussed for homeschooled students to document academic eligibility, including sworn parental affidavits, standardized testing, and enrollment in online or correspondence programs. Del. Bell explained to the subcommittee members that, while homeschoolers are willing to meet reasonable requirements to demonstrate that students are in academic good standing, it is important to recognize that families choose homeschooling because they want an educational option that differs from that offered in the public schools. Any proposed requirements that effectively negate homeschooling families’ academic freedom would be unworkable, Bell emphasized.
As at the hearing in September, VHSL Director Ken Tilley, as well as representatives of the Virginia School Boards Association and the Virginia Association of School Superintendents each spoke briefly in opposition to HB 2395. Their testimony expressed the importance of creating a “level playing field” for public school and homeschooled athletes, with matching academic eligibility requirements. Also speaking in opposition to the bill was Robert Jones, director of government relations for the Virginia Education Association, who stated simply that the teacher’s union supports VHSL’s position.
Mr. Tilley responded to questions from subcommittee members regarding public school students’ eligibility requirements, stating that they are not required by VHSL rules to take and pass the Standards of Learning exams. He also explained that local school divisions may create more stringent academic eligibility requirements for student athletes if they wish to, and that a small minority have done so. Mr. Lacey stated that for true parity, homeschooled students should be required to use the same “rigorous curriculum” as public school students, and warned the subcommittee that if homeschooled students were allowed to participate in public school sports, private school students would soon ask for the same access. Mr. Smith also suggested that homeschooled students be required to use curriculum matching the SOLs, and suggested that allowing homeschoolers sports access may create a financial and record-keeping burden on local school divisions.
The final witness to testify against the bill was Tracie Omohundro, a parent, high school principal, coach, and executive committee member of VHSL, who stated that she felt very strongly that the “sacred spots” on public school sports teams should be reserved only for public high school students, many of whom in her school division are struggling academically and otherwise, and need the motivation of athletic participation. Ms. Omohundro said that if homeschooled students were included, she feared that the positive impact of sports on at-risk public school students could be jeopardized. Del. Thomas Greason reacted to this testimony by stating point-blank that he represents “all of the students in [his] district,” including homeschooled students, and that the benefits of sports participation should be available to all students.
Two parents testified in support of the bill. Most eloquent was Robin Wilson of Roanoke, homeschooling mother to eight children, whose son has enrolled in public high school to get the benefits of being part of a football team (otherwise unavailable in their community) and whose daughters’ softball participation may come to an end if they cannot try out for their public school athletic program. Regarding the various academic eligibility options discussed by the subcommittee, Ms. Wilson stated that she would not wish to have her curriculum choice restricted in order to have sports access, and that Option IV, which would allow localities to decide their own policies, would exclude her children, as their local high school principal is opposed to homeschool sports participation.
VaHomeschoolers sees Option III as the most desirable mechanism for homeschool sports access, because it is in line with Virginia’s Home Instruction Statute and because its implementation would not present undue burdens for local school divisions or homeschooling families. At the same time, we recognize that the subcommittee members are concerned that the evidence of progress requirements of the Home Instruction Statute may not provide enough information to assure parity in academic eligibility requirements, which has created a call for research into other options.
After the hearing, VaHomeschoolers Board members met privately with Del. Bell and representatives of Home Educators Association of Virginia (HEAV) and HSLDA to discuss strategies for the subcommittee’s next working meeting in November. VaHomeschoolers will be working to research a variety of possible options for demonstrating academic eligibility that could work for homeschooled students and their families, without restricting their academic freedom, and that could also reasonably parallel the requirements in place for public school athletes.
The special subcommittee will meet for a third hearing in November. This will again be a working session, with little anticipated time for public commentary, though there will be many opportunities for public participation once the bill moves back to the full committee and along its legislative journey. VaHomeschoolers continues to support HB 2395 in response to our members’ views expressed in our annual survey. At the same time, we remain vigilant to avoid any impact on overall homeschooling freedoms, particularly in terms of imposing any additional evidence of progress or curriculum requirements on homeschoolers in general — though we recognize the reality that homeschooled athletes who wish to partake of public school programs may have to meet extra requirements in order to do so. We remain cautiously optimistic that this bill will eventually become law, though we do not necessarily think we will reach the end of that journey in the upcoming legislative session. Comments and questions from the special subcommittee members indicate that understanding of this issue by the delegates may be developing in a way that favors our position in the long term.
If you have questions or comments about this hearing, or about homeschool sports access, please contact VaHomeschoolers Director of Government Affairs, Amy Wilson.
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.