DANIEL RODRIGUEZ USED TO wrestle and play basketball. Now his friends play for Solanco High School while Daniel, an 11th-grader, watches from the sidelines. Daniel isn't injured. He's homeschooled. And the Pennsylvania public-school district where he lives bars homeschoolers from its sports programs.
Pennsylvania ninth-grader Ryan Crider is also homeschooled. But he made the Penn Manor Junior High football team in seventh grade after that district opened sports to homeschoolers. Now Ryan plans to try out for the varsity basketball squad as well.
Daniel and Ryan exist on two sides of an educational divide: whether homeschoolers should be able to participate in public-school activities. In some states, government schools have thrown open their doors to home-taught kids who want to take classes or to participate in activities like sports and music; others have slammed them shut. At issue are three main types of public-school offerings: academic or "curricular" (particularly advanced math and sciences); extracurricular (such as band or choir); and interscholastic (mostly competitive sports).
Laws in 16 states allow homeschoolers "equal access" to one or more of these types of activities (see chart). Six states bar home-educated students from participating in one or more types. Such prohibitions have usually arisen from litigation in which a private-school or homeschool family was denied equal access, then sued.
In 1998, for example, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower federal court ruling against Annie Swanson, a homeschooled Oklahoma seventh-grader who, with her parents, sued the Guthrie Independent School District to gain part-time enrollment in district music, science, and foreign-language classes. In 1996, a New York court ruled against a homeschool student who wanted to participate in interscholastic sports.
In states with neither legislation nor case law addressing equal access, the question is usually left up to individual school districts or private associations. According to the Home School Legal Defense Association, most states have private associations that hold sway over public-school interscholastic activities. Many such groups have by-laws that prohibit schools from allowing non-full-time students to participate. If a school violates those rules, an association can boot the school out of the league or make its teams forfeit games.
The debate over homeschool participation in public-school activities is more than a fight over laws and rules. Homeschool families themselves are philosophically divided. Those who favor equal access believe it is unfair to bar home-educated kids from public-school programs, since their tax dollars help foot the bill.
"Homeschool families pay millions of dollars a year in school taxes," said Tim Lambert of the Texas Home School Coalition (THSC). "They should not be denied the ability to voluntarily take advantage of the resources of a public school simply because they have made an alternative educational choice."
Homeschoolers who favor equal access also say mixing home-educated students with those in public schools tears down stereotypes. "I think one of the surprise benefits for both sides is that each becomes less 'suspicious' of the other," said Susan Richman of Pennsylvania Homeschoolers. "School folks realize that at least some homeschoolers are really nice, hardworking kids, ready to really give to a sports team, school orchestra, or drama production. The homeschoolers start realizing that not all [public] school kids are on drugs or pregnant.... Some barriers are broken down."
Parents who oppose equal access argue that entangling their students with government schools will invite increased government regulation of homeschooling overall.
"To participate in any government-sponsored program invites an authority that doesn't belong to [government]," said Susan Stewart, a California mom who homeschooled three children between 1981 and 2000. "As more private and home-educated students take part, more accountability for those students will be required.... The argument will then be that these regulations will only apply to those participating in government school activities. But ... our government doesn't work that way. Once the camel's nose is under the tent, he will continue on in."
Parents and groups opposed to equal access also worry that any marriage between homeschoolers and government could choke out innovation such as the homeschool sports and extracurricular clubs that have sprung up to fill the activities void. The 13-year-old National Christian Homeschool Basketball Championship tournament, for example, drew more than 200 teams from 25 states in 2003. The National Christian Forensics and Communications Association sponsors speech contests and debates nationally.
But some homeschoolers have no access to local programs that fit their child's gifts and interests. That was the case with the Lymans, a homeschool family in Amherst, Mass. Wid and Isabel Lyman homeschooled their son Daniel, now 20. Wid Jr., now a senior, is also homeschooled.
When Daniel reached high school, he wanted to play football. But in Amherst, what Mrs. Lyman calls a "quintessential New England liberal college town," there are few homeschoolers. With no opportunity to form a league of their own, the Lymans, "without enthusiasm," allowed Daniel to play on a local high-school football team. Daniel excelled, went on to play high-school lacrosse and ice hockey, and ultimately became the only student-homeschooled or not-to play every contact sport offered at the school.
On the downside, said Mrs. Lyman, he spent a lot of time mixing with teens brought up in an aggressively liberal academic environment: "Danny was smart and not easily intimidated.... He could hold his own, but certainly was very intrigued by public-school culture."
What Daniel really lacked, the Lymans realized, was camaraderie with young Christian men. That's why they chose a different route for their younger son, Wid. On a vacation several years ago, the Lymans passed through Bozeman, Mont., and liked the feel of the town. They later learned that Montana-a state that prohibits homeschool participation in public-school sports-has a vigorous homeschool sports community. Now, in an unusual arrangement, the Lymans organize their work schedules so that the family can spend winters in Montana, where Wid plays ice hockey for a privately run team and basketball for a homeschool league.
Though their younger son has flourished in Montana homeschool sports, Mrs. Lyman said the scarcity in Amherst of sports alternatives for Daniel has made her "a lot more sensitive to homeschoolers who have teen boys looking for outlets. If you live in a community where there aren't a lot of homeschool sports, you're kind of in a bind." Mrs. Lyman believes home educators must handle the issue on a case-by-case basis, according to the gifts and temperaments of their children.
Some state legislatures are considering bills that would remove school districts' case-by-case discretion. HB 214, a Texas bill that would have granted homeschoolers full equal access, died in the House after the Texas education department complained about its fiscal impact. The department's estimate was far too high, said THSC's Tim Lambert, adding that the legislature may reconsider HB 214 in an upcoming special session.
In Pennsylvania, a bill that would require public-school districts to allow homeschoolers to join in activities "including but not limited to clubs, musical ensembles, sports, and theatrical productions" passed the House and is now under consideration in the Senate education committee.
That means Daniel Rodriguez may yet get a chance to play Solanco High School basketball with his friends. "They think it's dumb that I can't [play]," Daniel said. "I hope it changes."
-with reporting by Bethany Toews