Home Work

States are easing barriers for homeschoolers, but Utah stops short of making athletic eligibility too easy.

Oon 506 Ab The e-mail that Evan Excell sent to members of the Utah House Education Committee on Feb. 16 was lengthy, but it didn't mince words. The executive director of the Utah High School Activities Association called a then-pending Senate bill that would have made it much easier for homeschooled students to participate in interscholastic sports and other extracurricular activities "the beginning of the end of academic-based high school activities."

At the time, the committee was considering Senate Bill 72, under which homeschoolers would need nothing more than a note from Mom or Dad stating that they are "maintaining satisfactory progress" in their academic work in order to play sports for a public school within their district boundaries. Oversight of homeschooled athletes by the Utah State Office of Education subsequently would be eliminated. "When activities become a right rather than a privilege, they will no longer be controlled," Excell wrote. "We are one of the states [that] embrace these students. Just let us govern them equally."

By the time Excell's plea reached the House Education Committee, the Republican-led Senate had already passed the bill - introduced in January by Sen. Mark Madsen (R-Lehi), a homeschooling parent with a history of proposing legislation favorable to families that homeschool. But the Utah Legislature adjourned March 1 before SB 72 could make further progress, thus rendering it dead - at least for now.

The UHSAA's reaction to the bill didn't surprise officials at the Purcell, Va.-based Home School Legal Defense Association, a nonprofit advocacy organization that defends the constitutional rights of homeschooling families. "We wouldn't object to the state of Utah saying that a homeschooler can just walk on to a sports team without showing any proof of academic progress," says Ian Slatter, the organization's director of media relations. "But at the same time, we do understand that playing sports is a privilege, and if you're holding public school students to certain academic standards, it's not unreasonable to expect homeschoolers to prove equivalent instruction. There's a very obvious problem with the proposal in terms of the opportunity for abuse."

Madsen, who did not respond to AB's repeated requests for an interview, told The Salt Lake Tribune in February that he has "a lot more confidence that parents will be more rigorous than a public school. I'm more inclined to trust parents than a public school bureaucracy. It's amazing what the high school establishment will do to keep a kid eligible. And they're worried about parents who homeschool?"

Within the past several months, at least four other states have made strides toward creating or enhancing equal access to sports and other activities for homeschoolers, and more are likely to follow, according to Slatter. But had Madsen's proposal become law, it would clearly have made Utah the most lenient equal-access state in the country. "I think this was really out on the edge," Excell says. "And I don't think it's going away."

Utah currently allows homeschooled students to participate in interscholastic sports or other extracurricular activities at a school within their district boundaries, provided they meet academic-eligibility requirements equivalent to those of enrolled students. "We think that policy is working wonderfully," Excell says, claiming that SB 72 "blindsided" the UHSAA. "In fact, in my 12 years as executive director, I have yet to find a homeschooler who did not have opportunities to participate. We probably have about eight to 10 homeschooled kids a year who play sports. We have catered to them, and we felt like this was a slap in the face."

Other states that allow homeschooled student-athletes to participate in sports include Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont and Washington (see "Homegrown Talent," Dec. 2004, p. 43). Last November, Pennsylvania became the latest addition to that list, although that didn't stop the Bethlehem Area School Board from trying to force homeschoolers to take the same standardized tests as enrolled students prior to suiting up for competition. The HSLDA recently thwarted that attempt by threatening to sue the district, calling the proposal discriminatory and claiming it violated the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which excludes homeschooled students from taking standardized tests.

In December, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association changed its bylaws to permit member schools to compete athletically against homeschooled teams or individuals. It did not, however, go so far as to allow homeschooled students to participate as members of public school teams. Meanwhile, as of this writing, equal-access bills in Alabama and South Carolina are stalled in their respective state Senates.

"There is definitely a trend toward equal access," Slatter says. "As the number of homeschoolers entering their high school years increases, there is tremendous pressure from homeschool parents to gain access to public school sports teams. I think you'll see more states like Pennsylvania recognizing a standard equivalent-of-instruction policy and allowing homeschoolers access. I don't anticipate an avalanche of states opening up their programs, but over time - especially if we're not seeing problems with homeschoolers playing sports in other states - I think the trend is going to be toward more openness."

Slatter adds that he "would be surprised" if many (or any) states go as far as what Madsen proposed in Utah.

Madsen wields some power in the Utah Legislature, as evidenced by his spearheading of a sweeping law passed in 2005 that exempted homeschooling families from school district oversight in daily curriculum and attendance, standardized testing, learning facilities and teaching credentials. That's one reason why Excell suspects the senator won't back down on this issue when the Utah Legislature reconvenes in early 2007.

It's worth noting that SB 72 was altered twice during its short life span, including a late amendment that would have prohibited a public school student who was declared academically ineligible from dropping out and enrolling in a homeschool program simply to play sports - among the worst-case scenarios that Utah athletic officials had envisioned.

Regardless of whether Madsen decides to further his cause, Excell fears that damage to the previously amicable relationship between the UHSAA and the state's homeschooling community has already been done. "Some of the e-mails I sent to the House Education Committee were probably not viewed as very friendly," he admits. "The homeschooling community will probably counter with some editing of the bill and come right back with it. I wouldn't be surprised if that happens."

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