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Homeschool Students on Athletic Teams Continues to be Much-debated Topic

By Cody Porter on December 19, 2017 hst Print

The participation of homeschool students on high school athletic programs in their school of residence is a much-debated topic that often has as many questions as answers. From one state to another, the definition of a homeschool student varies. As a result, some states that allow homeschool students to participate on a school’s athletic teams may have more complex measures in place than others.

A recent survey conducted by the NFHS exploring the participation of homeschool students in athletic programs at their school of residence (see Around the Nation map on page 8) yielded more than a simple “Yes” or “No” from executive directors of member state associations. While 34 executive directors answered that they do allow such participation, there were numerous qualifications, including that participation may not be allowed at the local level. In at least six states, the “Yes” answer is the result of a state law in place that mandates the allowance of homeschoolers on a school’s athletic teams. Those states include Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin.

The NFHS conducted a similar survey in 2013 that revealed 30 member state associations allow homeschool students to participate at their local school – and that number was a six-state increase from 2007. While history indicates an upward trend – 24 in 2007, 30 in 2013, 34 in 2017 – the “Yes” responses continue to be blurred. Among the “Yes” states were Michigan, Indiana and Maine, all of which have different requirements for homeschoolers to participate.

“It’s a difficult ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer to ask,” said Jack Roberts, Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) executive director, who reported the MHSAA does allow homeschool student participation (if school policy allows) as part of three options within its rules.

“In theory, homeschool students are eligible for high school sports in a couple of different ways,” he added. “In practice, a lot of schools won’t make that happen. They want the students who are enrolled in their schools, taking classes in their schools, to be participating on their sports teams and not be displaced by kids who drop in at three or four o’clock when the day is over.”

Dr. Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC), was one of 13 survey respondents who said their state did not allow homeschool students to participate in their local school’s athletic programs.

“In order for parents to homeschool their child, they have to write a letter and send it to their school district. The school district can communicate that to the state department,” Niehoff said. “They don’t have to verify curriculum material; they don’t have to verify assessment data; and they don’t have to participate in the state assessments. They’re basically out there on their own with no accountability. Because there’s no accountability, we exclude them from potential eligibility in interscholastic athletics because they’re not held to the same academic standards. That has kept us safe so far.”

On the surface, that may be true. However, Connecticut’s rules allow for homeschool students to gain eligibility for athletic participation if they are enrolled and passing at least half (4 credits) of the full course load of a public school student.

“It’s not a black-and-white issue,” she said. “I think homeschool students have very well-intentioned parents who want an innovative learning environment for their kids. They’re all still kids that deserve to grow and be a part of other kid communities and activities that are organized so that they have a connection to the way learning happens for others. They are a small minority of our population. I think our rule works for us because we have academic eligibility standards. Should it change from a state perspective, we wouldn’t be terribly upset because it’s such a low percentage of kids.”

The United States has an estimated 1.7 million homeschool students ages five through 17, according to a 2016 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education. Of those, four percent of homeschool students reside in rural areas, three percent in cities and three percent in suburban areas.

The report also revealed 80 percent of parents chose to homeschool their child due to a concern about the environment of other schools, which could include safety, drugs or negative peer pressure. Nearly 34 percent of that group disclosed that their primary reason for homeschooling was the environment of other schools. Another 17 percent of parents of homeschool students were dissatisfied with academic instruction at other schools.

For those homeschool students who have an interest in athletic participation, requirements to do so vary on a state-by-state basis. As Roberts mentioned, while states like his may allow homeschoolers to play with at least part-time enrollment, the choice ultimately falls on local school boards.

“A student enrolled in our schools can take their courses anywhere – at a college, online or in a home school,” Roberts said. “They can take them anywhere, and if those courses are given credit on the school’s transcript, this student can play for that sport so as long as the student is passing at least 66 percent of what would be a full credit load for an enrolled student who is actually taking classes at the school.”

One of the three options in place for athletic participation under MHSAA rules states homeschools can choose to sponsor and conduct an athletic program. Homeschool teams are legally a non-public private school, according to Roberts. Homeschool teams can participate against MHSAA member schools in all sports except football.

Secondly, homeschool students enrolled in a homeschool can participate immediately upon enrollment if taking courses at another school when taking and passing at least 66 percent of the full credit load of a full-time student’s course work.

Third, Roberts noted the most common option takes place when, provided local high school policy allows, a student enrolled in a high school may take as much course work as he/she wants at home and maintain athletic eligibility when passing at least 66 percent of the full credit load.

“We sometimes have angry parents over it, but we have set up a structure where in many cases a student who is taking some, or maybe all, of their courses at home can play on sports teams,” Roberts said. “Most of the schools won’t make a provision to make that happen, or sometimes the parents will object that there’s too much school oversight.”

The Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) has similar rules in place that support athletic participation at the local high school level.

Effective since the start of the 2013-14 school year, a student enrolled full time in a non-public or non-accredited high school is granted eligibility to participate on his/her local public school when the student is enrolled in and attending at least one class at the public school to qualify for one full credit. The student must have also been a member of the non-public school for three successive years before requesting eligibility, complete any of the available statewide, Indiana Department of Education authorized examinations, and be taking and passing a minimum of 70 percent of his/her maximum number of available classes.

IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox has been in support of the legislation since it was initially founded. Cox said the primary goal was to create an opportunity for a true homeschool student, not opening a path for a parent to remove their student who may have academic or behavioral issues.

“I think if you don’t have some parameters with that rule and you say homeschoolers can play, where’s the accountability,” Cox asked. “What if you never see this kid until he shows up for cross country practice? What’s going on? You got to have some measurement of oversight by the member school for that student to have a meaningful and fair opportunity to participate in relation to all other student-athletes.”

In Maine, the lines aren’t as blurred. Students receiving homeschool instruction may enroll in any academic, cocurricular and extracurricular activities at their local high school of residence, according to the Maine Legislature.

At the local level, the superintendent’s approval is required for regular classes and cocurricular activities, but the superintendent cannot withhold his approval without reason. To try out for extracurricular activities, the superintendent’s approval is not required. A homeschooler playing on a private school team can have his/her team disqualified from interscholastic competition by the Maine Principals’ Association (MPA) under federal law.

“The student has to be truly homeschooled with involvement by the parents. It can’t be a situation where the student and family get together with other families to form a mini private school,” said Dick Durost, MPA executive director. “They can have somebody come in to teach a specialty like calculus or chemistry, but the essence of the teaching has to be done through the parents.”

To date, Durost said his association has not seen any examples of abuse with the rules in place. He added that the MPA has “no more than 15 to 20 percent of its homeschool students participating in public school activities.”

“If we looked to fine-tune the rules that we have in place, we may raise an issue where there isn’t an issue,” Durost said. 

At the end of the day, each executive director believes the window of time spent with peers leads many homeschool students back into public school settings. Equipped with a public school background, Cox said there’s simply some things that students can only learn in a brick and mortar school.

“As a homeschooler, you don’t experience the rigor of sitting and learning in the classroom, going to lunch or being a member of a team,” Cox said. “There’s a lot of learning that goes on there. Whether you like it or not, you learn some things in the lunch room, you learn some things in the hallway, you learn some things on the bus. That’s just part of the total package. That’s part of the maturation process.”