Tim Tebow Debate: Should Homeschoolers Be Allowed on Public-School Sports Teams?

Several states are considering proposals to let homeschooled kids play sports at public schools

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Joe Mahoney / AP

Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow kneels and prays before the start of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears in December 2011, in Denver.

The Denver Broncos’ offseason just started, but their star quarterback Tim Tebow is already back in the news. Legislators in Virginia and several other states are considering proposals to allow homeschooled students to play high school sports at local public schools. Called Tebow laws, they are the same kind of rules that allowed their homeschooled namesake to play high school football in Florida long before he joined the NFL.

Despite — or perhaps because of — Tebow’s success, the prospect of lots of homeschoolers joining high school sports teams has the education establishment up in arms. Many opponents to Tebow laws repeat the mantra, “High school sports are a privilege, not a right.” Others fret that the logistics will be too daunting; for starters, how can you ensure homeschoolers are academically eligible to play? And after years of deriding public schools, homeschooling advocates seem shocked they’re not being greeted with open arms. The controversy surrounding Tebow laws is at once a reminder that homeschooling is too lightly regulated and a cautionary tale for those who want to broaden support for public schools.

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The debate in Virginia, where I served on the state board of education, about the proposed Tebow law is the highest-profile so far. The politician championing the law got a lot of attention last week with the way he celebrated the bill passing one chamber of the state legislature: by Tebowing, getting down on one knee as the quarterback has become famous for doing and bowing his head in prayer. (Governor Bob McDonnell has said he will sign the bill if it passes in the state senate.) Homeschooled students in Virginia — as well as in some other states — can already take classes in public schools if local school districts decide to allow it. The Tebow law would work the same way. It wouldn’t mandate participation but would create a local option for school districts to decide. For their part, student athletes would still have to make the teams they want to play on and pay fees just like public school kids. According to various homeschooling associations, 29 states currently allow access to sports for homeschooled students, although often with many restrictions on eligibility. Just 13 states provide broad access for homeschoolers.

The most recent federal government figures estimate there were 1.5 million homeschooled students in 2007. Homeschooling continues to grow — advocates say the total figure is closer to 2 million today — but its popularity remains tempered by the reality that doing it well is an awful lot of work. Serious homeschooling parents not only spend a great deal of time teaching but also staying current on curriculum and pedagogical issues. Increasingly, homeschooling parents are banding together and using technology to help lighten the load. Although religion and values are big drivers of many families (including the Tebows) who decide to homeschool, those aren’t the only reasons. Some families are attracted to the schedule flexibility; others are concerned about the academic quality of their local public schools or just want something different. As evidence of the diversity among homeschooling families: not all the homeschoolers in Virginia support the Tebow law, and major homeschooling associations are staying on the sidelines absent a consensus.

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Opponents of Tebow laws make some good points. Just because some homeschoolers win the National Spelling Bee or ace the SATs doesn’t mean homeschooling is uniformly high quality. There are no reliable systematic evaluations of homeschooling quality because there are no common measures. Only 24 states even require any kind of standardized testing for homeschooled students. Homeschooling families I know worry about this and acknowledge the complicated interaction of personal liberty with the societal need to ensure that students are getting a sufficient education.

Virginia, like many states, has slowly moved to liberalize homeschooling. For instance, in 2006 then-Virginia Governor Tim Kaine signed a bill lowering one educational requirement for homeschooling families, from requiring a bachelor’s degree for one parent to simply needing a high school diploma to be able to teach at home. The state’s previous governor, Mark Warner, now a U.S. Senator, had vetoed that legislation. Proponents argued that most states had no such requirement — in fact, 41 don’t require any qualifications for parents. But that speaks more to the lack of attention to quality than the merit of the idea.

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That’s why I agree with Tebow law opponents that there is reason to be concerned about the quality of some homeschooling experiences. Academic eligibility rules for high school sports are a hard-won education reform. If homeschoolers want to integrate with the public system more, they need to play by some of its rules. That means that, at a minimum, there needs to be some sensible regulation of homeschooling quality for students who want to play sports.

But I don’t understand the self-anointed public school advocates who are simultaneously decrying homeschoolers for being separatists while throwing up walls to keep them from participating in high school athletics, an activity that brings communities together. It’s a position born of adult prejudices, not the well-being of kids.

In a diverse society like ours, there is value in commonness. Opponents of Tebow laws have it backwards: integrating homeschoolers into our public education system advances the goal of commonality. Besides, given all the problems our public schools face, it makes sense to build bridges to different communities, not exclude them. It’s how you build support and political coalitions. Letting homeschoolers play sports is one way to do that — if the homeschooling community can get past its reflexive opposition to regulation and meet the public schools halfway.

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