Leveling field for homeschoolers

Published 7:44 pm Friday, January 25, 2013

Assembly considers Va. ‘Tebow Bill’

Legislation allowing homeschooled students like L.A. Dodgers draftee Josh Henderson of Suffolk to participate in public school sports moved ahead in a House of Delegates subcommittee on Thursday. The sponsor of a similar bill in a Senate committee decided to postpone discussion of it there to next week.

The bill has been nicknamed the “Tebow Bill” after National Football League quarterback Tim Tebow, who was homeschooled but was allowed to play football for a public high school in Florida. Twenty-nine states have passed the bill.

“We’re way behind,” Albemarle County Delegate Rob Bell said.

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The Tebow Bill broke new ground last year in Virginia, making it through the House of Delegates, but it was stopped in the Senate Education and Health Committee due to key efforts by local Republican senator Harry Blevins.

This year, it was brought back in the House by Bell and the Students and Early Education Subcommittee recommended reporting it with amendments to the Committee on Education. Sen. Thomas Garrett Jr. has brought a similar bill forward in the Senate, where it will stand next week before the same committee that brought it down last time.

Former First Baptist Christian baseball standout Josh Henderson testified for the legislation during the last General Assembly session with his younger brother Chris, who is also a baseball player. Henderson explained why he supports the bill.

“I just don’t feel that me as a homeschooler and other homeschoolers are being given a fair shot to play sports, because our parents pay taxes and everything else,” he said.

Since taxes go to support public schools, Henderson believes that even though his parents decided home schooling was best for him in the classroom, he should have been allowed to remain teammates on the field with childhood friends who did attend public schools.

“We played together pretty much all our lives coming up, and then we kind of had to go our separate ways during the school season,” he said.

Bell said some options exist for homeschoolers in smaller sports like swimming and soccer.

“But outside urban areas, the local high school is often the only game in town, and even in these urban and suburban areas it’s often the best competition,” Bell said.

Some sports involve large teams and lots of equipment, like football or lacrosse.

“There are very few opportunities to play those outside the high school setting,” Bell said. “And so these are taxpaying families, their kids are being educated in compliance with the law. We have a homeschooling law, and these are parents that are complying with it, and I think it’s only fair that those students be allowed a chance to try out for the local high school team.”

Sen. John Miller, who represents a portion of Suffolk, presents a different perspective on the bill after having worked for the Virginia High School League, which governs public high school sports and after school activities.

“Under the VHSL rules, a high school athlete has to meet 13 different eligibility requirements, and in the past, the homeschool bill would only have those students meet six of those requirements,” he said. “So there was a fairness issue there that if you’re going to play, then you ought to meet the same requirements as everybody else.”

“I believe that if a parent decides to homeschool their child, these decisions have consequences, and if they don’t want their child in the public school, then they shouldn’t be allowed to participate in public school sports or extracurricular activities,” he said.

A representative of Sen. L. Louise Lucas indicated she would be voting against the bill while Delegate Richard Morris expressed support for the legislation.

Scouts for many major league teams came to watch Henderson play for First Baptist Christian School, but they had to adjust their perceptions, knowing the level of competition he was facing was rarely, if ever, elite. He was eventually drafted, though in a much later round than expected.

“That’s an outlier,” Bell said of Henderson’s success story. “He’s having to do it the hardest way possible. Not unheard of, but that’s no easy road that he’s on.”