As students begin a new academic year, Kojo chats with D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson.
Virginia lawmakers are considering a proposal to allow home-schooled children to participate in public school athletic programs. The proposed legislation has been nicknamed the “Tim Tebow Law,” after the famously home-schooled professional football player. Kojo explores the issues at play and what they could mean for parents and students in the Commonwealth.
- Dave Zirin Sports Editor, The Nation; Author, "The John Carlos Story" (Haymarket Books) and "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket Books)
- Scott Woodruff Senior Counsel, Home School Legal Defense Association
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe Beach Boys once told us to be true to your school, that letting your colors fly and cheering at football games was part of what it meant to belong to a school and its community. But what if the people you're cheering at the game don't actually go to school with you at all? Virginia lawmakers are pushing a proposal this year that would allow homeschool students to play sports for their local public schools.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's called the Tim Tebow Bill, named after the professional football player, who famously played sports for a public school in Florida while he attended classes at home. Proponents of the bill, including Gov. Bob McDonnell, say it gives homeschool students a chance they deserve. That their families pay taxes that supports schools and their activity programs, and that they're entitled to participate. But some say that such a bill could open the door to ugly forms of recruiting to public school teams.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd even at that, private organizations have reason to dominate much of modern youth sports, so much so that opportunities to play for public schools don't matter as much as they once did. Joining us to explore the issues at work is Scott Woodruff, senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association. Scoot Woodruff, thank you for joining us.
MR. SCOTT WOODRUFFIt's my pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Dave Byron, (sic) sports editor for The Nation. He is also an author who most recently worked with former Olympic medalist John Carlos on his book, "The John Carlos Story." Dave Zirin, always a pleasure.
MR. DAVE ZIRINHey, great to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIScott, the Virginia House of Delegates this week advanced a bill that would make it easier, as I've mentioned, for homeschool children to play for public schools' athletic teams. What's the landscape like nationwide when it comes to whether homeschool students are allowed to participate in public school activities like school or drama?
WOODRUFFKojo, there are 18 states, which currently allow homeschool students to play on sports teams. There are probably another eight or 10 where it's strictly a local option.
NNAMDIIt seems that part -- well, anecdotally, what do you hear from parents who teach their children at home, but still want to find a way for them to participate in these kinds of activities? How do they typically find a way to make it work?
WOODRUFFIt's tough because homeschoolers are generally working on a fairly local level, you know, their home, their family, their neighborhood. And they're generally not going to have a large body of students from which they could pull together a team. And so it makes it hard to create a large team experience within the homeschool community. And so for them, the ideal solution is to be able to at least try out so they could plug in to the public schools' sports teams.
NNAMDIAre they also trying out for roles in plays, in theater, for instance?
WOODRUFFThis bill would permit that because the bill addresses all activities governed by the Virginia High School League, and that does include some debates, some forensics, some theater activities, yes.
NNAMDIWhat's going on in other states in those other areas, forensics, debates, drama, like that?
WOODRUFFI can't really speak to that, and frankly I doubt that's going to be utilized much by the homeschool community. There is already one thriving popular homeschool debate league that's going, and I'll be very surprised, frankly, if many homeschool students shifted over to a public school debate program. But there is no comprehensive homeschool sports program that's very difficult to replicate in our community, and so that's the primary avenue we're likely to look into.
NNAMDIIt seems that part of the push back against this idea is that public school students are required to meet academic standards to participate in sports. What mechanisms are there in place to determine whether homeschool students meet such academic standards?
WOODRUFFWell, first, let's take a real quick look at what those standards actually are. A student under the VHSL rule can flunk every single course in eight grade and play football in his ninth grade year. After that, he can get D minuses in every single course and continue to play football. In fact, he can take two remedial courses and continue to play football. And if that doesn't work, there is the possibility of the IEP, Individualized Education Plan route.
WOODRUFFIf a student is on an IEP, then none of those academic rules apply to him. And an IEP, I imagine, is going to be somewhat subject to, shall we say, flexibility. You know, a lot of kids have a little touch of attention deficit disorder or hyperactive, and if there's an athlete you want on the team, and his grades aren't good enough, if he's flunking thus far instead of getting D minuses, if you could arrange for him to have an IEP, something with those Fs wouldn't matter.
WOODRUFFSo the standards that exist in the VHSL rules are honestly nothing to be just super proud about. On the other hand, the standards that are within the bill that's before the Virginia General Assembly actually requires homeschool students to have two years, two full years, of successful academic progress before they can try out for a team.
NNAMDIAnd how would that academic progress be measured?
WOODRUFFIt's measured, for most people, through a standardized test.
NNAMDIDave Zirin, a few years ago, you wrote what you call "A People's History of Sports in the United States." At what point in that history did the schoolhouse become such a central venue for athletic competition?
ZIRINThat's a great question, because I think it informs this discussion in a way that's helpful. The modern public school athletic leagues are a product of the end of the end of 19th century. I mean, before that, your schoolhouse was distinct from any sort of organized play. And even organized play had only been around for several decades before the end of the 19th century, and it was something that was underwritten. The PSAL, Public School Athletic League, it was underwritten by the great industrialists of the day. It didn't come directly from government itself.
ZIRINBut it was written into law by people like J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie. Basically, if you find a library, look whose name on it. They probably played a role in underwriting public school sports in this country. And the goals were very specific. They were aimed primarily at Southern and Eastern European male young students, who are either first generation or second generation as part of that immigration wave.
ZIRINAnd the goal was very specific about using sports as a form of community and acculturation. Like, you're in America now. This is what it means, and this is how we build community. Now, this has had a bunch of side effects, some of them very positive, some of them very negative.
ZIRINIt's sort of mutated, as we've spoken about before, into its own life with professionalization of youth sports as well as all kinds of rivalries that are sometimes very unhealthy between different schools and different communities. But the general core mission of it has been this idea of building community and of trying to use sports as a way to get students, who might not be great in the classroom, to feel like they're part of the larger environment.
NNAMDII'm glad you talk about the origins of the idea. And, by the way, if you'd like to join the conversation, how do you feel about the idea of homeschool students being allowed to participate in sports at public schools? Call us at 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow. If, in fact, that -- these sports were used as a way to socialize immigrants who were essentially working-class immigrants, how have they evolved? Where do you think sports now fits into socializing experiences that young American students have today?
ZIRINOh, I mean, I think it's gotten very off track for several reasons. I mean, first of all, immigration is still very much an issue in this country, of course, an issue meaning that we have people coming to our shores from all over the world, but primarily, of course, from Latin America and from Asia. But what you don't see now is an effort to use sports to make incoming students, in this area, for example, from El Salvador, to feel like they're part of the community.
ZIRINBecause, at a lot of schools, physical education has become less a right than a privilege, less something that you involve everybody in and more something that is for students who are there to be seen because of their exemplary ability on the field. But this message gets sent to students at a very young age in a public school setting, that some of you are there to watch and some of you are there to play.
ZIRINI mean, that's why we have issues like childhood obesity and childhood diabetes in this country because, at a very young level, it's -- we are removing young people from physical play. And, today, immigrants are actually more likely to be left out of that because they haven't grown up playing these sports -- and being part of the pipeline to be key. It's not about not having the skill or perhaps potential to do it. It's about a pipeline that starts at a very young age.
ZIRINI see this with my daughter who's seven, for goodness sakes, about starting at that age to slot them, to say you are going to be playing sports for many years in this public school environment.
NNAMDIScott, families that homeschool are paying taxes that go to public schools, but that's a choice they make, just the same as families who send their children to private schools. Washington Post columnist John Kelly, this week, wrote that the homeschool families supporting the Tim Tebow law are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. How would you respond?
WOODRUFFWell, they don't have a choice about paying taxes. They're required to pay taxes like everyone. And there's no compelling reason that I could think of that you would not allow them at least a shot to try out. And if you boil down the question to, which plan is really going to best for the kids in the long run, you're probably going to say, let the kids try out because it not only gives the homeschool students a chance to try out for the team, but, in the long run, it will probably, by a slight degree, increase the level of competition in the public school program.
WOODRUFFAnd as we all know, we all do a little bit better when the level of competition around us is a little higher. And so, by allowing homeschool students to try out, it's actually going to have a net effect of improving public school sports programs.
NNAMDIWhat John Kelly implies, or certainly what I infer from what he has written, is that this could start a trend where people are allowed, as he writes, to pick and choose the parts of public education that they agree with. And so if I agree with one aspect of public education, I should be allowed to participate in it. If I don't think, for instance, that my child should be learning biology in a public school, then I simply should have the right to send my child to public school and not have him take biology.
WOODRUFFThat's sort of magnifying the issue to an extreme and then attacking the extreme, but that's not actually what's going on here. Many schools in Virginia already allow homeschool students to take one or two classes. For example, in Loudon County, where I live, a home-schooled student can take up to two high school classes. Those 18 states I mentioned, which allow home-schoolers to play sports, most of them also allow them to take one or two or three classes.
WOODRUFFSo that option is already available. But if a student wants to be -- to receive a diploma from a public school, they're obviously going to have to satisfy those diploma rules.
NNAMDIOn to -- oh, Dave Zirin?
ZIRINWell, just really quick, my concern with the bill -- and I'm obviously not nearly as educated as the gentleman to my left, but my bill concern is just the reality of what sports recruiting looks like these days and how younger and younger and younger it's getting. I mean, the amount of safeguards one would need and, frankly, the amount of government investigation and intrusion that would be necessary for this bill to make sure it's not being exploited, is huge 'cause the professionalization of youth sports in all the major sports that end up becoming revenue-producing is very severe.
ZIRINSo the idea that a school could position itself as almost a recruitment magnet and advising -- even to the point of advising parents, just keep your kids out of the school. We'll call it home schooling. We'll figure out a way to do that, and we'll get you to play for this team. And you could also play with these local celebrities, who, by the way, are 14, but they're celebrities already, which would maximize your child's chances to be able to get that big time scholarship.
ZIRINI mean, if people think that sounds fantastical, I mean, that's the reality now at some boarding schools that are taking high school players in basketball for a "fifth year" that then allows them a pipeline to the best schools.
NNAMDISo you're saying that if people are gaming the system already, giving them more, in a way, of a system to game, it might not be such a good thing. What do you say, Scott Woodruff?
WOODRUFFIf Virginia were the first state in the entire country to let homeschool kids play sports, I would say, yeah, maybe we should be anxious about that. But we're not the trailblazer on this issue. We're sort of behind the pack. There are 18 other states that already allow this to happen. And I have attended most of the hearings on this bill, and no one has stepped forth and said, oh, in my state, this has become a problem for recruitment.
WOODRUFFSo I think the vast majority of the hypothetical problems can be dismissed because they simply haven't occurred in the states where it's already allowed for home-schoolers to play sports.
ZIRINThat actually makes me nervous that that hasn't been testified to because I think a lot of school administrators, as showing more and more, actually benefit from having these kinds of successful teams because they're now revenue-producing even at the junior high school level. And so to not have that voice to say here's how recruiting works, I think, gives us an incomplete picture.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Where do you think sports fit into the socializing experiences that students have at school? On to the telephones. Here is Natalie in Alexandria, Va. Natalie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NATALIEThank you. I just wanted to pipe in. I just moved to this area. I have five kids in Fairfax County schools right now. I moved here in August.
NATALIEI was born and raised at -- thank you -- born and raised, and raised my children, for the most part, in Colorado. And I don't know how long the law had been effect -- in effect in Colorado, but, certainly, when I was in high school and then when as I was raising my children, we allowed home-schoolers to participate in all after-school activities, sports, drama, clubs of any kind, that kind of thing. And I think it's important to point out that people homeschool for various reasons.
NATALIEI home-schooled two of my children only for a year at a time because they were special education. And, for various reasons, they were not doing very well in school and we had one-on-one situation. And my kids participated in after-school activities, and it allowed them to stay, you know, up-to-date with their friends, keep up within the sports they were into, you know, and just kind of have a social life that they don't have as a home-schooler.
NATALIEAnd I think there's a lot of homeschool families that do that kind of thing where it's something that's maybe temporary for an illness or a family situation or something like what my situation entailed.
NNAMDIOK. People do homeschool for a variety of reasons, Natalie. Scott Woodruff, I got an email from Allen in Haymarket, Va., who says, "On the one hand, many homeschool kids I know are not in school because their parents don't want them mingling with minorities or don't want them in a godless place all day long. Many think they are too good to be in public school. I have no doubt some of the other kids will realize and respond accordingly. On the other hand, these parents are paying taxes, and their kids are entitled to an education.
NNAMDI"Perhaps it may behoove the Department of Education to offer all secondary education as a buffet, allowing parents to enroll their children as part-time students." Would playing or playing on a sports team or participating in other public school activities, in your view, cause that student to be considered a part-time public school student? And does the legislation affect them?
WOODRUFFWell, this legislation won't affect part-time enrollment in academic classes. That's already the law. Any public school in Virginia can offer to let home-schooled students take academic classes if they wish. And as I said before, Loudoun does. The availability of sports is the new thing.
NNAMDICan you tell us in our region which ones do, which ones don't? Our emailer seems to be suggesting that we are increasingly looking at public schools as a kind of buffet, where you take where -- what you want and don't take what you want.
WOODRUFFAnd that's a very interesting concept because the more freedom that you bring into a system, usually you end up with a more satisfactory result. If you take freedom out of a system, usually you're less happy with the final result. For example, I remember when there was only one telephone you could have. It belonged to the telephone company, and you had to rent it. Well, when the monopolies were broken up, we got cellphones. We got iPhones. We got bazillion kinds of phones because freedom was added to the system.
WOODRUFFAnd as we add freedom to the educational system and the sport system, there's that potential to cause a burst of creativity and productivity, too.
NNAMDICauses some other things also, Dave Zirin. It seems that the debate over participation in public school sports may be rendered moot in the sense that for -- in terms of the choices available for a lot of sports. Private leagues and teams are now the kings of the scene. There are athletes competing in major college sports who have never played for their high school team. What do you think is the significance of what you call the privatization of youth and high school sports?
ZIRINThis -- well, this is the fear that, with this legislation, what you are also seeing are high schools and even junior high schools trying to figure out ways that they can compete with the AAU and compete with other traveling teams and other privately-sponsored teams. And this is where you get to some of the issues that are real concerns about applying principles of the free market to something like public education.
ZIRINLike, I agree that it's nice to have different choices of deodorant or different choices of phones, and you want to unlock creativity when it comes to products. But when you're talking about something like a school and an educational system, I mean, how do you determine when you use -- when something is unleashed or not? Like, what if there's a teacher who's particularly difficult, but who you appreciate years down the line?
ZIRINHow do you build a community if you're only there for part of it? What if kids, like me when I was a kid, hated physics, so they all decided to opt out of physics because that's not what they like on the buffet? How do we deal with parents who are more negligent versus more studious in how they push their kids? It's just -- it's a big bowl of worms, is what I'm saying.
NNAMDIHold your response to that, Scott Woodruff. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation on home schooling and sports. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on home-schooled sport -- home schooling and sports. We're talking with Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation. He's an author who most recently worked with former Olympic medalist John Carlos on his book "The John Carlos Story." And Scott Woodruff is a senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association. Scott, Zirin -- Dave Zirin was making a point at the break. I offer you the opportunity to respond.
WOODRUFFHomeschool kids are part of your community. Homeschool kids live where you live. Homeschool kids play where you play. Homeschool kids go to the same stores. They go to the same churches. They go to the same movie theaters on the weekends. They are part of the community. So Dave was talking about community building, and I would say that's a valid point to think about. And so why don't we expand the definition of community a little bit to include kids who live in that area, who happen to have chosen a different form of education?
NNAMDIGlad you pointed out in that area because Larry in Crofton, Md., I think, would like to make a point along those lines. Larry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LARRYOK. Thank you for this opportunity. I think that the -- one way to deal with the issue of recruiting home-schooled students to play in different games is that they only be -- may be affiliated with and -- with the school in their district, from preschool and through high school, that if they're going to take courses at a school, unless it's a specialized course like voc ed or something like that, even then, they go to these -- they go to the school that the -- that's part of the district.
NNAMDIHow does that work in the various districts in Virginia, Scott Woodruff? And would that be included in the legislation, some requirement that it be a high school in the general vicinity of where the home-schooler lives?
WOODRUFFYes. That's actually written right into the bill, and I'll just quote from it. It says that, "Eligibility shall be limited to participation in interscholastic programs at the school serving the attendance zone in which such student lives." And also bear in mind that, because a student has to have two full years of academic progress in home schooling, it's going to be impossible for someone who's in the public school to suddenly switch to home school and keep playing sports. He won't be able to play sports until he has two full years of good academic progress behind him in the home school context.
NNAMDI"Seems to me," according to an email from Lisa, "the same rationale being used for home-schooled students to compete on public school teams -- their parents pay taxes, and they get counted in the census towards what the local area gets for the state and federal funding -- could be used for private school students. What's to stop a private school student who doesn't like his or her private school's sports program from using the public school's sports program? Somehow, it doesn't seem entirely fair." I hadn't thought about that aspect of it, Dave Zirin.
ZIRINI'd actually like to hear Scott respond to that.
NNAMDIScott, what would you say? A private school student says, hey, I should be allowed to do this, too.
WOODRUFFWell, the equity there brings us to the point that a private school can have a school team.
NNAMDIWhat if it doesn't?
WOODRUFFWell, it is still a school. It's still organized as a school. It presumably has facilities for some kind of a team. It can organize students just by calling an assembly, and so they have all the resources necessary for some type of a sports program. But an individual home school family simply does not have that resource.
NNAMDIHow about a home-schoolers' league?
WOODRUFFThat's an interesting point. And there...
NNAMDIJust thought of it.
WOODRUFFYeah. In Kansas, actually, there's a very strong thriving basketball home school league, but that hasn't occurred in Virginia or, really, hardly any other states.
NNAMDIYou can find a link at our website to that, as a matter of fact. Scott Woodruff, we're out of time. Thank you so much for joining us.
WOODRUFFYou're so welcome.
NNAMDIScott Woodruff is senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association. Dave Zirin, we're out of time, but you'll be back.
NNAMDIDave Zirin is the sports editor for The Nation. He's also an author, most recently with former Olympic gold medalist John Carlos on his book "The John Carlos Story." Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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