'Tebow Law' for homeschool sports faces opposition over eligibility
by BOB LEWIS AP Political Writer
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - All Will Brockman wants is to play soccer for a few more years.
"I don't have a David Beckham or a Tim Tebow on my hands, but he's not bad," Sharon Brockman boasts of the 13-year-old son she homeschools in Montgomery County near Christiansburg.
Will plays on a private club team now, but that will end once his contemporaries matriculate into high schools and compete on their varsity teams over the next year or two. And under current Virginia law, Will will watch from the bleachers unless he enrolls in the public schools - something Sharon Brockman says won't happen.
"If push comes to shove, he won't play high school soccer either. It's more important to us that his education be what it is than he gets to play public high school sports," Sharon Brockman said in a telephone interview.
For years, a bill that would open public school sports teams to home-schooled athletes living in their attendance districts has come before the General Assembly and just as often, it floundered, usually before the Senate Education and Health Committee.
But with the Senate under new conservative management with this month's disputed Republican takeover, three bills by Republican House members revive the issue.
Sponsors call it the "Tebow Law," named for Tim Tebow, an evangelical former homeschooler who won a Heisman Trophy and led the Gators to a 2008 national title at the University of Florida, then quarterbacked the Denver Broncos into this season's NFL playoffs.
"These people pay taxes that support their public schools. You can't just shut them out from the facilities and activities they're paying for just like everybody else," said Del. Rob Bell, a bookish 44-year-old Albemarle Republican who sponsors one of the bills and is burnishing his conservative credentials for a 2013 race for attorney general.
Florida is among at least 15 states across the country that put no restrictions on home-schooled students who want to play interscholastic sports at public schools in their communities, according a state-by-state summary from the Home School Legal Defense Association.
At least 13 states allow home-schooled children conditional or partial opportunities for extracurricular involvement at public schools.
The National Conference of State Legislators says it does not track the issue.
Opponents of the bill say that allowing kids who want no part of campus academic and social life to crash high school varsity teams would be unfair to full-time students, create enormous competitive inequities and gut eligibility and participation requirements of the Virginia High School League, the statewide sanctioning body for public interscholastic athletics and other activities.
"There are 13 individual eligibility requirements for participation for our programs, and under Delegate Bell's bill, the homeschoolers would meet only six and part of a seventh," said Ken Tilley, the VHSL's executive director.
Paying state and local taxes that underwrite public education doesn't, by itself, create an entitlement to a spot on a public high school varsity team, Tilley said.
"There are thousands of public school students whose parents pay taxes and who don't meet all of the 13 eligibility requirements and they can't participate," Tilley said. "Why should homeschoolers get that advantage? It completely destroys all fairness."
He's not alone in opposing the Tebow bill. The politically potent Virginia Association of School Superintendents and Virginia Education Association, which represents more than 60,000 public school teachers, have joined the fight.
They contend there is little or no periodic monitoring of academic progress for children taught by parents at kitchen tables, unlike in public classrooms. Nor, they say, is there any way to verify that a student is doing classroom work through the day, instead of working out with a personal trainer.
It would foment resentment among students and athletes, their parents and particularly school faculty, said Keith Rowland, the superintendent of Shenandoah County's public schools.
"The teachers are going to have that message ringing in their ears: 'I'm not good enough to provide you an education during the day, but I'm good enough to provide you come and play.' That's not a real good message," Rowland said.
Perhaps the bill's most formidable adversary is Del. Robert Tata, R-Virginia Beach. The chairman of the House Education Committee is nicknamed "Coach" for the football teams he led to championships in his days as a high school educator. He also was a University of Virginia football and baseball star in the early 1950s who played briefly for the NFL's Detroit Lions.
Tata fears that opening high school sports to homeschoolers would weaken the system's accountability and allow aggressive coaches at powerhouse sports schools to "recruit" home-schooled blue-chip players.
"I guess what you'd have is sort of like a bunch of adolescent free agents," Tata said with a laugh. "But how would you control it? I mean, you could have some 6 (foot) 4 (inch) gorilla at home who can't read or write but can run a 4.4-second 40-yard dash."
"It'll start all these schools recruiting, and don't think it won't happen," he said.