House passes ‘Tebow Bill’ again

Published 9:37 pm Thursday, January 28, 2016

By Matt Chaney

Capital News Service

For the third year in a row, the Virginia House of Delegates has passed a version of the “Tebow bill,” opening the door for home-schooled students to participate in after-school sports and other activities sponsored by their local public schools.

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The House on Wednesday voted 58-41 in favor of the legislation, nicknamed for star quarterback Tim Tebow, who excelled playing high school football in Florida in the early 2000s while being homeschooled.

House Bill 131, sponsored by Del. Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville, would prohibit Virginia public schools from joining interscholastic organizations that ban home-schoolers from participating. This would put pressure on the Virginia High School League to allow home-schooled students. The bill does not require local school boards to let home-schooled students participate in sports or other activities.

The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers supports such initiatives.

“There is a group of young, hardworking, disciplined, American citizens, who are discriminated against because they choose to home-educate,” Joshua Pratt, a Campbell County resident and father of a home-schooled ninth-grader, said in testimony on the group’s website.

According to Pratt, his son Micah can’t compete in state cross country competitions, despite excelling in the sport in privately held competitions. “This is wrong and should be changed.”

Bell said HB 131 would apply only to home-schooled students who meet age and academic requirements. It would not guarantee that those who try out will make the cut.

Bell emphasized the bill would allow students to play sports only within the school district they would have attended if they were in public school.

He also said it would be up to localities to determine if they want to let home-schoolers participate.

“If Madison County said, ‘We want our home-schoolers; we need them for the team,’ and Greene County said, ‘We don’t want ours,’ Greene County would have none, and Madison County would have theirs,” Bell said.

Moreover, the bill would authorize school divisions to charge homeschoolers reasonable fees to participate.

HB 131 would expire in 2021. So if it were enacted and state legislators later determined that they made a mistake, the law could be changed. Bell found this scenario unlikely.

“I will tell you that no state that has taken this step, and a majority of states have, have ever reversed themselves,” he said. “The parade of horribles we hear every year has never turned out to be the case, and I predict that in five years from now, we would pass it without any objection.”

HB 131 still has a long way to go. Similar versions of the bill have been kicked around the General Assembly for years. Last year, the assembly passed such legislation, but Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed it.

Much of the opposition to the bill has to do with the “choice provision” of the bill. Some fear the law may be used unequally by different districts, thereby creating an unequal playing field.

“The fact that it’s described as local option doesn’t assure that everybody can play by the same rules,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax.

“What this bill says is that [school districts] may not participate … in the Virginia High School Athletic League, unless they change their policies to allow homeschool kids, because we in the General Assembly don’t like the policies that the VHSL has set up.”

The bill next goes to the Senate. An identical bill — SB 612, sponsored by Sen. Thomas Garrett, R-Hadensville, awaits action by the Senate Committee on Education and Health.