Enquirer Herald

Should S.C. home-school students play on public school teams?

Eyeing a career on the soccer field, Brandon Wong wants to spend afternoons next school year practicing and playing with competitive teams. It would sharpen his skills and possibly lead to college scholarship opportunities.

But that’s not an option.

While the seventh-grader can play club soccer in the fall, there’s nothing competitive in the spring besides the public school league, which the home school student can’t take part in.

“One of the reasons most parents home school is to allow their children to pursue their passions,” Brandon’s mother, Judy Wong, said. “This is just a huge stumbling block.”

That could change if a proposed bill known as the “equal access to interscholastic activities act” is passed. It would open the door for students in home schools and either of the state’s Governor’s Schools to sign up for extracurricular activities through the public school districts in which they live, as long as they meet eligibility criteria.

Brandon, for instance, could join Fort Mill Middle School’s soccer team in the fall.

The state Senate has signed off on the bill. It’s now up for review by a House committee.

It follows a charter school bill the Legislature passed last week, which would, among other things, require school districts to allow charter school students to take part in extracurricular activities such as sports and music. That bill is awaiting Gov. Nikki Haley’s signature.

Proponents argue that opening access is only fair: Families who pay income and sales taxes, some of which goes to the public school system, should have a chance to take part in extracurricular activities.

They point to professional football star Tim Tebow, who was home-schooled, but took advantage of a Florida law that allowed him to play for a public school.

“He is an example of how that can work in a positive way,” said Julie Shumpert, membership director for the S.C. Association of Independent Home Schools. “As taxpayers, families should have the prerogative to participate.”

Others worry that an influx of outside students without extra money to accommodate them could lead to an administrative burden and a bureaucratic mess for traditional public schools.

“I’m not sure how students could be tracked to make sure they meet requirements,” Rock Hill school board member Walter Brown said.

If a school were to learn late in a season that certain players are ineligible, Brown said, “it could jeopardize the entire season for a team.”

Jerome Singleton, commissioner of the S.C. High School League that oversees competitive sports, sent an email to school administrators and athletic directors that said allowing charter, home-schooled and Governor’s School students to take part “presents many challenges for our member schools.”

The bill conflicts with the League’s constitution and would give charter school and Governor’s School students “advantages ... that do not exist for students of single school districts,” he wrote.

For example, a student in a district with only one high school can’t take part in an activity that his school doesn’t offer, but charter and Governor’s School students could.

“You may challenge the bill by contacting your local House of Representative to express your concern(s),” Singleton wrote.

In an interview with The Herald, Singleton said his email was not meant to encourage educators to oppose the interscholastic act.

“All I was doing was pointing out to them the difference,” he said.

Charter school bill

Supporters celebrated last week after lawmakers approved the charter bill.

“A one-size-fits-all model of education simply doesn’t work for many students,” state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais said. “I urge Governor Haley, an ardent public charter school supporter, to sign the bill at the earliest convenience.”

Leaders at York Preparatory Academy, a Rock Hill charter school open to students in kindergarten through 10th grade, welcome the chance for students to take part in extracurricular activities at nearby schools. While York Prep has started a basketball team and band program, parents often ask about more activities. For some, it’s the deciding factor.

The charter bill’s provision is “good for York Prep, and it’s good for the community,” school board Chairman Carey Netherland said. “It opens up opportunities that we’re not ready to provide. But it’s not going to deter us from pressing on and trying to offer more activities.”

The interscholastic act, which addresses home school students, leaves details unclear. For example, it isn’t clear whether marching band would be included as an extracurricular activity. In most high schools, the program is co-curricular, which means students get a grade.

Rock Hill schools Superintendent Lynn Moody said she doesn’t have a position on the bill, but she worries about unintended consequences.

“We’re committed to teaching, coaching and training all students,” she said. But “it always comes back to funding.”

Taking on more students without money to match them “deletes resources from other students we’re serving,” she said.

A large portion of the state funding for public schools is determined by the number of students enrolled. Under the bill approved by the Senate, a district wouldn’t receive funding for students who are home-schooled but who participate in sports or other extracurricular activities.

Fort Mill school board Chairman Patrick White supports giving more students access to activities. But he wonders how it would work on a practical level.

“I can see this as one of those things administrators spend hours on,” White said.

S.C. Sen. Wes Hayes, a Rock Hill Republican, supports the bill.

He expects it has a little more than 50 percent chance of passing this year, but should be a shoe-in by next legislative session.

Hayes agrees that it could stand to be improved before a final vote in the House, and it may put an extra burden on district and High School League officials.

But giving more children opportunities to take part in public activities takes priority, he said.

“It’s better to err on the side of what’s best for children,” Hayes said.