The Home Team

9 minute read
Andrew J. Rotherham/Richmond

Nick Faulconer isn’t simply homeschooled. He’s also “road-schooled,” as his mother puts it, by audiobooks she plays as she drives the mop-haired 14-year-old 90 miles each way from their home in rural Virginia to twice-a-week soccer practices in an elite private league in Richmond. Other guys on the team know Nick doesn’t attend a traditional school, but it’s not a source of friction, he says, because most of them have friends who are also being taught at home. “It’s pretty normal,” he says. But next year he will be forced to part ways with many of his teammates when they quit the recreational league for high school squads. Nick’s mom Jeanne wishes he could join them. She doesn’t think there are enough skilled players in their area to establish a competitive homeschoolers’ soccer team, and that has turned her into an ardent supporter of legislation that would allow kids like Nick to play sports for their local public high school. “We want the option,” she says.

So do plenty of other homeschooling families–the ranks of which keep growing. According to the most recent federal estimates, the number of homeschooled children in the U.S. has nearly doubled from 850,000 in 1999 to 1.5 million in 2007. As more families opt out of conventional schools, they’ve found many ways to match the benefits that traditional students get. Homeschoolers can now obtain discounts on computers from Apple and Dell, work on art projects at libraries and even obtain special educational rates for amusement parks (for field trips on the physics of roller coasters). In several states, parents can file for tax credits for tutors and enroll their kids part time in public school to take band or chemistry or any other subject that is tough to teach at home. But play varsity sports for the local high school? That’s where many critics of homeschooling draw the line. What’s more, they’re joined by some homeschool parents, who fear that the access sought by Faulconer and others runs counter to the principles that drove them to keep their kids at home in the first place.

The sports question–and the divide it underscores–has become even more charged lately thanks to Tim Tebow, the homeschooled kid in Florida who grew up to become a football phenomenon for the Denver Broncos. As more families decide to teach their kids at home, 28 other states have passed laws like the one that enabled Tebow to play football for a public high school near Jacksonville. Twelve states are considering similar legislation, nicknamed Tebow laws, and in a 13th, Virginia, a bill was approved by a wide margin in the house of delegates in February but failed by a single vote to get out of a senate committee in March.

Opponents of homeschool sports-access bills include public-school superintendents and athletic directors who say Tebow laws will undermine hard-won academic-eligibility requirements for public-school athletes. Some critics fear that more students might opt out of public-school classrooms if they can still take part in the fun extracurriculars.

More telling, in some ways, is the pushback coming from fellow homeschoolers. Parents who teach their kids at home are bitterly divided over the athletics issue, which has emerged as a proxy battle for how much of the movement’s effectiveness–and even its identity–depends on keeping themselves apart. Homeschooling is facing a potential transformation as it gains mainstream acceptance and grows beyond its base of parents who passionately reject everything about public education. Many of the newcomers like the la carte approach to public schools–take an AP class! try out for the orchestra!–while the pioneers worry that greater integration could lead to more regulation.

“We asked 20 years ago to be able to do our own things,” says Chris Davis, a devout Christian and father of three homeschooled children in Linden, Va. “Now they’re saying, ‘Let us back in.’ As soon as you do that, [the government is] going to start asking something of you.”

Davis, who works in the tech industry, runs a homeschool sports league in his free time and encouraged its members to lobby against Virginia’s homeschool sports-access bill. In a letter to the legislation’s sponsor, Davis pointed out that Virginia’s homeschoolers have three tackle-football teams for high schoolers, a statewide track meet and an East Coast basketball tournament with more than 80 teams. “Any homeschool parent in Virginia that can’t seem to find an organization or team,” he wrote, “is just misinformed, lazy or not trying very hard.” Of course, in a state in which it can take eight hours to drive from end to end, three football teams is not a lot.

An Issue of Fairness

Back in 1925, with the Ink Barely dry on compulsory-education laws in several states, the Supreme Court ruled parents could not be required to send their children to public school, solidifying the legal status of private and parochial schools. But homeschooling remained a largely underground phenomenon until the 1960s and ’70s, when supporters began pushing for laws that dozens of states passed in the ’80s and ’90s. The few states that still lack homeschool statutes allow individuals to teach at home under private-school laws.

An entire industry has emerged to provide curriculum and resources to homeschool parents, who often band together to teach. “I do science, English and history,” says Melissa Ryan, a co-op member and mother of three in Pullman, Wash. Her primary reason for homeschooling is to teach her children–the oldest of whom is 10–her Christian values. “In public schools, students get really lost, with so many outside influences and a lot of pressure they don’t need to deal with,” she says. That’s why Ryan is not interested in having her kids enroll part time in public school. At the same time, though, she notes that her local school district gave her pointers on how to get her daughter assessed for dyslexia. “Teachers in our area are really helpful,” she says. “They have not closed doors to us.”

Nick Faulconer’s mom Jeanne sounds a different note. When she talks about why she decided to homeschool her three sons, two of whom have already graduated from college, she sounds more like education activist Diane Ravitch than a Bible-thumping zealot or secular hippie. (“Don’t get me started on the portrayal of homeschoolers,” Faulconer wrote recently on her blog. “I have to go unlock the basement so my child can get some socialization.”) Faulconer pulled her kids out of public school after the oldest one finished fourth grade because she thought the teachers were too focused on prepping kids for standardized tests. “This emphasis drove me crazy,” she says. “Testing where there was only one right answer seemed oppressive to me.”

Her husband works in manufacturing, a career that has forced the family to move from state to state as plants close down. “Homeschooling provided a way I could customize academics,” says Faulconer, who stresses that she wants to impart her values to her kids but not at the expense of interaction with the outside world. “Our goal was to be a strong family that could be strong for the community,” says Faulconer, whose older sons are Eagle Scouts.

Like most Tebow-law supporters, the Faulconers aren’t interested in positioning Nick for a career in professional athletics. They see sports as something fun and challenging, a good way to help build character. There’s a more calculated reason too: the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers, of which Faulconer is an active member, supports the legislation because sports can help kids qualify for college scholarships.

Beyond that, there’s the general issue of fairness. “We’re not looking for special treatment,” says Faulconer. As a taxpayer, she says her son should have the same option to join the local high school team as do students in Virginia who attend online public schools and other alternative high schools.

Gaming the System

Opponents of Tebow Laws have a quick and obvious rejoinder: Faulconer should enroll Nick in a public school. It’s a simple response with a complex set of reasons behind it. The most compelling is a desire to maintain common academic-eligibility standards for high school athletes. States set requirements like a minimum number of classes a student must be taking and passing in an effort to make sure schools prioritize academics over athletics.

It’s a real concern: around the country, some parents do extraordinary things in the name of high school sports, including holding kids back a grade so they’ll be bigger when high school rolls around or moving to another town for a certain coach or more playing time. (Tebow and his mother relocated to an apartment in a county where they liked the high school coach more than the ones near his family’s farm.)

Some states’ academic requirements make compliance all but impossible for homeschoolers, who generally do not organize their education around classes in the way public schools do. One solution favored by supporters of Tebow laws is to have athletes who want to play high school sports take their state’s standardized tests. But that’s anathema to many hardcore homeschoolers, who in some states aren’t even obligated to provide their names and addresses to the state board of education. Only 24 states require any kind of testing or evaluation for homeschooled students, and only nine specify any qualifications for parents who seek to teach at home.

Meanwhile, public-school advocates worry that students might try to game the system by dropping out and homeschooling at strategic points in their athletic careers. But despite opponents’ certainty that Tebow laws–the first of which was passed in Colorado in 1988–are a disaster in the offing, they have yet to produce an example of real abuse. In other words, in states that already have the laws, they’re not a big issue.

In February, when the Virginia bill passed the house of delegates, the legislation’s sponsor, Rob Bell, celebrated by Tebowing–kneeling in prayer in the state capitol in the pose the Denver Broncos star made famous on the field. Bell, whose siblings were homeschooled, says he plans to reintroduce the legislation next year. “I have no doubt we’ll get there,” he says.

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