By Colin Kennedy
Capital News Service
RICHMOND --After nearly a decade of debate, some Virginia legislators are hopeful homeschooled students will soon be allowed to participate in public school sports.
House Bill 63, which was proposed by Delegate Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville, progressed through the House of Delegates’ Elementary and Secondary Education subcommittee this past week and likely will be heard by the House Education Committee next week.
This year’s version of the bill is identical to those that have failed by one vote at the Senate Education and Health Committee in recent years, Bell says, but there is reason for optimism this time around.
“For several years it has passed the House and been defeated in the Senate,” Bell said. “The Senate has always been a trouble, (but) we’ve got some changes in membership … so we’re hopeful we can get it out of the senate this year.”
These membership changes could make all the difference in 2014. Two members of the Senate Education and Health Committee -- both of whom repeatedly voted against the legislation -- have vacated their positions.
Former Sen. Harry Blevins retired and former Sen. Ralph Northam recently was elected to serve as the commonwealth’s 40th lieutenant governor. So, assuming all goes well in the House, and the remaining 13 committee members vote along the same lines as in past years, the fate of HB63 may hinge on party politics inside the Senate chamber.
The scale may have tipped in favor of the Democrats, who have traditionally opposed homeschool sports access, when Jennifer Wexton won Virginia’s 33rd Senate District race in a special election to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Mark Herring.
Though Democratic control of the Senate potentially could help determine which legislators are appointed to the Senate Education and Health Committee, Sen. John C. Miller, D-Newport News, says the issue extends beyond partisanship.
“Decisions have consequences and when a parent decides to homeschool their child, they are taking that child out of the public school and … away from all of the extracurricular benefits that a public school offers,” Miller said. “I don’t think that a homeschooled student should have the ability to pick and choose which activities of public school they’re going to participate in.”
Right now, homeschoolers don’t have extracurricular choices because the Virginia High School League, which oversees all high school sports in the state, prevents homeschoolers from doing so.
Miller is a member of the Senate’s Education and Health Committee, who previously served as the Senate representative of the VHSL. He says he thinks HB63 would be unfair to students enrolled in the public school system because homeschoolers would need to meet fewer eligibility requirements to participate.
HB63, which is nicknamed the “Tebow” bill after the former NFL quarterback who was allowed to play in public school athletics as a Florida homeschooler, would prohibit the commonwealth’s public schools from being members of the VHSL unless the school alters its eligibility regulations to include homeschooled students.
Such a resolution would make Virginia the 24th state nationwide to give homeschoolers at least limited sports access, according to The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers.
James Angel, the media spokesperson on legislative affairs for VA Homeschoolers, says he thinks the issue comes down to equal opportunity.
“We see this as a basic measure of fairness,” Angel said. “There’s really no good reason why homeschooled kids should not be allowed to partake in the activities that their parents, who are taxpayers, paid for.”
Ultimately, the taxpayers likely remain at the mercy of a 15-person senate committee that has defeated the same legislation several years running. More than 29,000 students statewide were homeschooled as of December 2013, according to the Virginia Department of Education, and Angels says he thinks this proposed legislation might finally have enough support.
“We’re optimistic that this is going to be the year,” Angel said. “It’s an issue that comes up year after year, and sooner than later, it’s going to get through.
The full house committee is expected to hear HB63 this week, and the bill could reach the Senate by month’s end.