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Equal opportunity players

Many U.S. homeschoolers want to participate in public school sports, but some states have resisted them

Equal opportunity players

(Krieg Barrie)

On Friday nights during football season in Richfield, Minn., half a dozen 16-year-old boys sporting grass-stained uniforms, still sweaty from practice, filled every chair around the Childs family dining table. They wolfed down whatever food Kristin Childs set on the table: In 40 minutes, they had to be back at school to watch the varsity football game. In those brief 40 minutes, Kristin and her husband Patrick saw an opportunity to show hospitality and Christian love to their son Eastman’s teammates.

“With football in particular, there were a lot of kids who came from broken homes,” Kristin says. “We live just a couple of blocks from the high school, and before I knew it, my son would bring home up to five different boys at once for dinner or homemade cookies.”

The boys admired the family’s home, lifestyle, and sense of togetherness. Patrick and Kristin were actively involved with their four kids, reading stories from wall-to-wall bookshelves, and preparing homemade meals together. They also homeschooled: Even though Eastman played football and baseball at the local public high school, Kristin educated him at home until he graduated in 2014. Youngest daughter Isabelle, now a homeschooled junior, plays softball at the school. Their school district supplies most gear and all athletic uniforms, even laundering them at no cost to players. Apart from the athletic fun, playing on the teams gives the Childs family a natural way to reach out to non-Christians.

But not every homeschooling family in the United States enjoys the same opportunity as the Childses. Minnesota is one of 34 states that allow homeschoolers access to extracurricular public school activities such as athletics. (Some of those states leave it up to the school district.) The other 16 states bar homeschoolers from public school sports.  

Government data show that in 2016 about 1.7 million U.S. students—3 percent of all K-12 students—were homeschooled. One-third of parents surveyed said they educated their children at home out of “concern about the school environment, such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure”—but many parents still want their children to play public school sports, where they can learn team skills, build friendships, and interact positively with peers.

Some state lawmakers have introduced “Tim Tebow bills,” named after the Heisman Trophy winner who grew up homeschooled in Florida. Because a 1996 Florida law allowed homeschool students to participate in public school extracurricular activities, Tebow was able to earn a spot on his local high school’s football team, where he became a standout.

Tebow bill proponents cite constitutional rights of due process, equal protection, and religious liberty. They note that homeschool families pay their share of property taxes, which support the public school system. Why should those parents, who may homeschool because of their religious beliefs, have to transfer their kids to the local public school just to get a spot on the team? (Courts have been largely unsympathetic to these arguments.)

Those opposed to allowing homeschoolers on public school sports teams argue those kids would crowd out public schoolers who must maintain more explicit eligibility requirements. The Virginia High School League actively opposed a Tebow bill in that state, with Executive Director Ken Tilley writing in a New York Times op-ed that “participation in school activities is not a right, it’s a privilege.” Tilley went on to write that homeschool students should instead participate in “recreational teams and … the growing number of home-school athletic programs that are cropping up across the country.”

IN TEXAS, A GENERALLY HOMESCHOOL-FRIENDLY STATE, statewide rules effectively bar homeschoolers from public school sports.

Richardson, Texas, resident Erin Orton lives in a high-performing school district but educates her children at home. Her sporty 11-year-old son, Hudson, stands out on his club soccer team: During games, he runs the field with laser focus, tongue sticking out, and later remembers each play. Orton wonders how she’ll answer him if he ever asks to join a public junior-high or high-school sports team.

“We don’t let athletics guide our decisions, and yet I want him to have the opportunity to live up to his fullest potential,” said Orton.

Jamey Harrison of the University Interscholastic League (UIL)—Texas’ governing body for public school extracurricular activities—gives a standard reason for saying no to homeschoolers: “To represent your school, you should be a student of that school.”

Harrison argues it’s a fairness issue: Public school students must take numerous standardized tests, “and they have five, six, seven teachers, these students get home from a game at 11 o’clock at night, they’ve still got to be at school on time in the morning. … A homeschool student is not subject to those things.”

Sarah Phipps/The New York Times/Redux

Opponents pray together at the National Christian Homeschool Basketball Championships in Oklahoma City, Okla. (Sarah Phipps/The New York Times/Redux)

Stephen Howsley of the Texas Home School Coalition offers a different view. He concedes that not all taxpayers use public school resources, but believes people should have the option. He told me Texas homeschoolers save the state “somewhere in the area of $2 billion” annually but “are not able to use just one, tiny sliver of that money that’s going directly into the school district.” The Texas Legislature has many times considered and ultimately failed to pass a Tebow bill.

Technically, a Texas homeschool student could take a few public school classes and then gain entrée to district resources. But other state regulations require students seeking athletic eligibility to receive an average of at least four hours of public school instruction per day, essentially making them half-time public school students.

Under Texas’ 1984 “No Pass, No Play” law, public school students are restricted to eight hours of practice per week outside of school time and an average of 60 minutes per day within school hours. If a Tebow bill were to become law in Texas, administrators may find it difficult to adhere to that statute. Harrison wonders how school officials would “verify that the [homeschool] student is not spending four hours a day at the golf course with his golf pro.”

Howsley, though, notes what many parents recognize: Employers and colleges often prefer students who have been on a team. “They like seeing that a student has been able to work with a group of other people cooperatively.”

While homeschool athletic leagues, club teams, or even YMCA activities are an option for some families, distance or cost are barriers to others. Howsley recalls hearing from parents in rural areas who drove over an hour each way for practice and games several times a week to participate in a homeschool league. And annual dues for club sports teams in North Texas can hit $10,000 for line items like coaches’ salaries, gear, team travel, tournament fees, and practice facilities.

AS IT TURNS OUT, SOME HOMESCHOOL PARENTS, cautious of increased government oversight, also oppose Tebow bills.

When Indiana state Rep. Timothy Wesco, a Republican, introduced a Tebow bill in the Hoosier State, he expected pushback from school administrators and the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA), the state’s governing body for athletics. Instead, he found fellow pro-homeschool lawmakers opposing the plan.

“Among the conservative homeschool ranks, there was a concern that this would lead to increased [state] regulations,” Wesco said.

State Sen. Dennis Kruse, a Republican and homeschool parent who had been a primary opponent of the 2011 legislation, told me he was also concerned about exposing homeschool students to potentially unwholesome “locker room talk.”

“Why would you want to expose them to that world when they’re not ready for it?” Kruse asked.

The bill also saw resistance from homeschool sports teams, who worried they would lose their best players to public schools, where such students might get more visibility.

Ultimately, at Kruse’s prompting, Indiana lawmakers made a deal with the IHSAA: Homeschool students who enroll in one public school class, take standardized tests, and meet basic eligibility requirements may participate in public high-school sports, at the principal’s discretion. In return, Indiana schools would receive additional funding to address the added expense of more student athletes.

The Indiana rule only allows homeschoolers to compete in public school sports if they have been home educated for at least three years. That way, Wesco said, a jock freshman can’t leave the public school to train in the gym all day under the guise of homeschooling.

BACK IN TEXAS, MANY HOMESCHOOL FAMILIES have found opportunities in community-based, individual athletic programs despite the lack of access to public school facilities.

In Dallas, homeschooling has afforded Charity Stark’s family a more flexible schedule for practices and competitions. Now Allie, 9, is thriving in gymnastics (16 hours of practice per week) and swim team, while 11-year-old Ryan swims and ranks as a third-degree brown belt in karate.

Athletics is a worthwhile discipline, Stark says, because of the physical, mental, and emotional growth she’s seen in her kids: “It creates an all-around person.”

Meanwhile, Howsley says his group will continue to advocate for a Tebow bill during Texas’ next biennial legislative session, beginning in January 2019. The bill passed the Texas Senate during the prior three legislative sessions, but stalled in the House Public Education Committee.

“In general, the people in that committee are very much in favor of public school, which is great,” Howsley says. “We are not about abolishing public schools, but we are for school choice and giving parents the freedom to choose how to use their education dollars.”

Homeschool pioneers:
Where are they now?

College admissions officers now know that homeschoolers are often high performers. In 2014, nearly 14,000 homeschooled seniors had SAT critical reading scores 14 percent higher than the average scores in reading for all college-bound seniors, 2 percent higher in math, and 10 percent higher in writing. Homeschool pioneers, though, often had to fight prejudice. Here are five of their stories:

Nels Peterson, 39, is now a Georgia Supreme Court justice. His parents had planned to send him to kindergarten, but the week before school started their second car died, so they decided to experiment: Homeschooling had just become legal in Georgia. It went well, so they kept going, and also homeschooled Peterson’s two younger siblings. All three children became lawyers.

Peterson recalls that the college admissions process was tricky: “Most universities wouldn’t consider homeschoolers unless they took a whole battery of SAT subject matter tests. I didn’t even bother applying to UGA [the University of Georgia] or Georgia Tech. Other schools were more welcoming.” Kennesaw State University waived requirements for those who scored in the top 5 percent on the SAT, so Peterson went there and became student government president and KSU Student of the Year. He then went to Harvard Law School.

Ben Uyeda, 40, co-founded ZeroEnergy Design, an eco-friendly architecture firm, in 2006. During his homeschooling days he and his brother built a soda bottle raft to float down a local river. Uyeda forged a crude sword at 11, ran several businesses as a teenager, worked in service and construction jobs before attending Cornell, and in 2008 co-founded FreeGreen, a producer of energy-efficient designs. He sold FreeGreen in 2014 and now, via HomeMade Modern, circulates do-it-yourself design products.

Abigail Rodriguez, 35, is a producer best known for television animal adventure series with names like Snake Salvation, Monster Fish, and Animal Underworld. Her family moved often because of Army postings, and homeschooling left her free to visit museums and explore. She developed curiosity and self-motivation, took a journalism degree at Patrick Henry College, and spent a decade with National Geographic TV. She now freelances, developing true crime and animal shows near Washington, D.C.

Matthew Boehm, 30, is president and CEO of PrefTech, a medical software company headquartered in Virginia. His homeschooling included organized co-ops and self-directed study as his family moved between Washington and Kansas. His wife Elisabeth, also homeschooled, worked at Prison Fellowship until 2015, advocating criminal justice reform. The Boehms have two young children with another on the way: They plan to homeschool starting this fall.

(Steve Cannon/AP)

(Steve Cannon/AP)

Jennifer Sullivan, 27, was elected to the Florida Legislature in 2014. While homeschooled, Sullivan took 4-H programs and in high school built relationships with grocery stores, schools, and local government while collecting peanut butter for a food bank donation drive. Those community relationships led to her election. She now serves on criminal justice, education, and ethics subcommittees and has sponsored bills to protect homeschooling and prevent sexual harassment.

—by Esther Eaton, a World Journalism Institute graduate

Katie Gaultney

Katie Gaultney

Katie is a senior correspondent for WORLD Radio. She is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism and Southern Methodist University. She previously worked in public relations, event planning, and speechwriting. Katie resides with her family in Dallas. Follow her on Twitter @gaultney.


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  • Ed M
    Posted: Tue, 08/21/2018 06:35 am

    Our son chose music over athletics, and we were very pleased to find that the local public high school welcomed him into the band program. Through the band he formed many friendships and learned how to interact and cooperate with others in a group endeavor. It was also an opportunity for my wife and me to form friendships with other parents who had children in the band program. We share the concerns of many homeschooling parents regarding the public schools, but there were several ways that we were able to be actively involved in this somewhat controlled environement, and it was a very positive experience.

  • liannf
    Posted: Tue, 08/21/2018 08:39 am

    One other reason that homeschool students are not allowed to participate in public school sports is that the schools see it as a way to attract better students to their schools. This is also the case for the local private Christian school.  We have seen this in our small rural town, where recreational sports die at about age 12-13 and those who enjoy sports are forced to decide between homeschooling and driving at least 2 hours back and forth for practice twice a week and games on the weekend with bigger city private schools or clubs or going to the local public school.  There have been many families who have homeschooled through early junior high and then put their kids in public school simply for access to sports and other activities.  I have heard from some that the benefits of that move for their families and children were not really as high as they expected.

    Thankfully, though our children enjoyed sports, they were not talented enough to want to continue past the time that sports finished for them.  All of them have been referees for soccer and most of them were able to participate in Boy Scouts or Venturing before it went south.  


  • 2Tired
    Posted: Fri, 08/24/2018 12:19 am

    Kudos to the parents that can withstand the allure high school sports has on kids...and some parents. 

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Wed, 08/22/2018 09:27 pm

    We began homeschooling in the mid 80s. We were not necessarily pioneers in that the movement had been around and our state was fairly, but not completely, receptive to it. Not for sports though. And still isn't. I am ambivalent on this topic. Our kids were able to participate in homeschool sports teams as well as Rec Council sports. There certainly are pros and cons. Like so many things we need to be very cautious with our relationship to the State. All that glitters is not gold.

    For me I like the last part of this article "...Where are they now." We became excited about homeschooling for our oldest. But as the day approached we got "cold feet" and then enrolled him in the local kindergarten program. Then through a series of events withdrew him and decided to educate at home for one year. We continued with the one year at a time perspective for all 4 of our kids. Though admittedly the die was cast as the years went by. All 4 did well. All 4 graduated college near the top of their class, A jet pilot, geotechnical engineer, interior designer and 4.0 English major testifies to the educational benefits of home education. I think the lowest college GPA of any of our graudates was 3.8. But even more, the value of family bonding, character development, and life stories are as, if not more, important. 

    Whether or not to play sports with the local public school teams should not be entered into lightly. But legislatively it is hard for me to see how tax paying families should be excluded. In my experience this was because of ignorance of what we did in our home laboratory, aka "classroom," and a certain amount of fear.

    Thanks for this interesting article.

  • Tricia
    Posted: Tue, 09/25/2018 02:07 pm

    We are working to get our son on a local high school team. Our state allows it. Our tax money still goes to the school. We still have to pay the activity fees for each sport. He played at the middle school last year. My oldest was a dancer, so we didn’t need public school for that. There is a homeschool league here for some sports, but it is 4-5 times as much money as playing for the high school. If it doesn’t work out, we will probably do the homeschool league - I think they play area Christian schools. But, we are in a big city area and have lots of options. I feel bad for homeschooolers in states where they can’t play on the high school teams and there are no leagues for kids over 14. Our tax money still goes to those school, we ought to be able to utilize those services.