Children whose parents opted out of the public education system in favor of home schooling will have an opportunity this fall to join Metro high school athletic teams for the first time.
The change in policy — opening the door for home-schooled students to intermingle on an extracurricular level with their traditionally educated peers — represents a more restrictive version of the kind of arrangement that famously allowed Tim Tebow to star as a run-first quarterback on a Florida high school football field while he focused on Christian-based studies at home.
The shift came after the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association took an unprecedented step in December, when it voted to establish a set of minimum eligibility requirements for home-schooled students to participate in public or private school extracurricular sports. Students must meet 10 criteria for eligibility, including various academic and curriculum guidelines. This, combined with a $300 fee charged to home-schooled participants at Metro schools and full tuition at private schools, could mean there would be few home-schoolers joining TSSAA-backed teams. Like traditional students, home-schoolers must try out and make the squad.
Outside Nashville, the new TSSAA bylaw has set off a debate, both on operational and philosophical points.
In Memphis, Shelby County Schools’ board of education is weighing whether to follow the athletic association’s recommendations and welcome home-schooled athletes. There, some board members have in recent weeks voiced worries about liability issues that could arise when home-schooled children are injured on a public school playing field. Newspaper editorials have followed, with skeptics asking whether children who divested from public schools should reap the benefits of the athletic competition those schools offer.
But head east on Interstate 40 to Metro Nashville Public Schools, and officials are making the transition without rancor. In fact, the move is happening absent any real buzz or discussion among school board members.
“This is just now going into effect this fall,” said Roosevelt Sanders, Metro schools’ athletics department director, adding that the key is to hold homeschoolers accountable to academic standards. “As with other students, if you follow the guidelines, fine. But if you don’t, it will have to be looked at to see if you’ll be able to continue to participate.”
For years, home-schooled athletes have tended to organize on teams exclusively with their home-schooled peers. The Middle Tennessee Home Education Association has sponsored the Makos swim team, for example, allowing competitors to square off against swimmers for area public and private schools at meets. There are also squads like the Middle Tennessee Fire, a Christian-centered soccer team that competes against traditional schools in tournaments. Similar home-school teams exist for basketball, eight-man football and other sports. But any effect the new TSSAA bylaw — and Metro’s adherence to it — might have on existing home-school teams remains unclear.
Sanders, tapped to oversee Metro’s athletics program last year, said so far he’s only received a handful of phone calls from home-schooling parents who want to discuss their options. He said he expects interest to pick up before the Aug. 1 deadline for home-schoolers to apply with the district. There is also an Aug. 15 deadline to register for some sports, including those that traditionally take place in the spring.
“I know that will change as No. 1, it gets more publicized, and No. 2, as the August deadline approaches,” he said.
Bernard Childress, executive director of the TSSAA, said the new policy is 12 years in the works. During that time, he said a committee tasked with studying the move met twice each year, conducted surveys and wrote drafts of the now-approved bylaw to comply with state law.
“The big issue has always been not participation but how are we going to measure their academic progress,” Childress said. “It was an educational process. They realized academic progress can be monitored, and they can be accountable for their grades. The council felt comfortable in going ahead and implementing the rule.”
Requirements for home-schooled athletes participating in public-school sports are stringent under the new rules. A student must be taking courses on at least five academic subjects that count toward graduation; meet the same academic and conduct standards required of all student-athletes; and receive at least four hours of instruction each day. Home-schooled students have to submit proof of medical insurance that lists the TSSAA as an insured party. In addition, all home-schoolers must be enrolled at a school administered by his or her parent or legal guardian.
Childress said local boards of education may exercise the right to stiffen guidelines, which could include banning home-schooled students from public-school athletics altogether. He said home-schooled students must reside within the school district where they are seeking to play or within 20 miles of a desired private-school team, as part of the bylaw.
Eligible athletes have to be registered with the surrounding school district or private school. But a greater number of home-schooled students are believed to be involved in various church-sponsored programs, to which the law does not extend. The City Paper could not determine exactly how many students are registered with such organizations.
According to MNPS spokeswoman Olivia Brown, 309 home-schooled students registered with Metro and received waivers from Director of Schools Jesse Register this past year to take coursework at home.
Childress said the TSSAA hasn’t heard from many school districts that explicitly oppose the move.
“We’ll hear one or two every once in a while say, ‘We’ll only allow students who enroll in our schools to participate,’ ” Childress said. “But we’ve probably only heard a minimum of three to five school systems that have made that statement. Most are saying that they’re going to take a serious look at it.”
Metro Nashville Board of Education chair Gracie Porter said she heard discussion last year about granting access to home-schooled athletes to compete on Metro teams, but she wasn’t entirely familiar with the bylaw that has since been approved. She said she doesn’t expect the nine-member board to discuss the issue.
“They should be held to the same standards as the students that are enrolled in our schools,” Porter said of home-schooled athletes. “My only concern is liability, of course, with any student. What happens if a child gets injured? That would be the question in my mind. I know for sure that the district is looking
at all of this and making sure that everything is covered.”
Likewise, board member Mark North, who frequently cites sports as essential in youth development, said he was aware of the new policy but had heard little discussion. He said he wasn’t informed enough to comment on the issue.
Hillwood High School Principal Steve Chauncy, who serves on TSSAA’s board of control, said he sees nothing wrong with the inclusion of home-schooled students on public sports teams.
“It’s just giving kids who are being home-schooled an opportunity to participate in athletics,” Chauncy said. “Based on all the guidelines, it’s pretty exhaustive of things a [home-schooled] student would have to do. And just like any other student-athlete, they’re going to have to meet the academic requirements as well as the eligibility requirements of TSSAA.”