RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A bill that would allow home-schooled students to play for public school sports teams has cleared a legislative hurdle.
The House Education Committee voted 14-8 Wednesday to approve the so-called "Tebow bill." It's named after Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who was home schooled in Florida but played for a public high school team.
Scores of home-schooled children and their parents packed a small, cramped committee room and argued that they are taxpayers and deserve a chance to have their moment under the Friday night lights of interscholastic sports.
However, public school administrators, teachers and PTA advocates said it creates an unfair playing field for children who stay home all day to compete for positions on teams with students who sat through at least five classes each day.
Virginia would join at least 15 other states that allow home-schoolers to play interscholastic sports at public schools in their communities, according a state-by-state summary from the Home School Legal Defense Association.
Thirteen states give home-schooled children conditional or partial opportunities for extracurricular involvement at public schools.
Scores of home-schooled children and their parents who packed a small, cramped room whooped loudly as the committee advanced the bill to the House floor.
Republican hold two-thirds of the seats and are poised to enact the bill as part of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's education package.
Prospects are less certain in the Senate, where Republicans control half of the 40 seats.
Among those who testified for the bill was Patrick Foss, a 17-year-old home-schooled junior from South Riding, Va.
He is ranked as the No. 16 college soccer prospect in the nation for the class of 2013 by ESPN, where his father works as a television producer. He said he has committed to sign a soccer scholarship next year at the University of Virginia and has played on a national all-star team for those 16 and younger.
"With the national team, I've represented the United States throughout the world, yet in my own community, I'm not allowed to participate," Foss said.
"One of the major reasons I chose UVa was the opportunity to represent my home state, Virginia, the same state that has deemed it inappropriate for me to play for my neighborhood high school," he said. "Every Friday night, I see the lights come on at my local high school and I wonder what it must be like to play in front of a hometown crowd."
The sponsor, Del. Rob Bell, said an amendment to his bill had closed a loophole that could have allowed gifted athletes to declare themselves home-schoolers and market their services like adolescent free agents to premier high school sports programs.
The law would prohibit public school affiliations with statewide sanctioning organizations such as the Virginia High School League that forbid home-school participants.
It also would give local boards authority to set independent participation criteria that could effectively eliminate home-schoolers. Besides the impossibility of reconciling incompatible eligibility standards and demands made of home-schoolers and public school students, opponents argued that interactions within teams that must accept home-schoolers will always be awkward.
"Simply put, there's the rigor of the school day. They wake up at 6 o'clock in the morning or earlier, the bus picks them up at 6:30, and they're in school by 7 or 7:15. At the end of that day, the bell rings, they're responsible for their academic endeavors, and then on to practice and competition," said Bill Curran, activities director of Fairfax County Public Schools. "It's an unfair playing field if you don't have that kind of rigor in your day."
Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke, said home-schoolers whose only link to the campus is the locker room and sports field will strain the team dynamic.
"Part of sports, whether you be male or female, is the comradeship. You have to bond, you have to be like one cylinder when you take that field," said Ware, a high school sports star back in his day. "For a home-schooler to go into a locker room, male or female, it's going to take some adjusting for the players," Ware said. "You can play (sports) with me, but you don't want to study or socialize with me."