Bill to allow home-schooled students to play high school sports heard
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Bill to allow home-schooled students to play high school sports heard

Date: March 24, 2010
By: Michael Bushnell
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Home-schooled students or those who attend private schools without athletics have to choose between their school or getting to play sports. A Senate bill discussed Wednesday would change that, but it ran into some procedural problems that could imperil its success.

Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, has sponsored a bill creating the "right" for a home-schooled student to apply to play sports at the public high school they would otherwise be zoned to. It would also allow eligible 19-year-old students to play, increasing the age limit currently set at 18.

During the roughly hour-long hearing, Senate Education Committee members heard from Sam Williams, 14, an eighth-grade home school student from Neosho. Williams said he wanted to continue his wrestling career past the club team he had been on for eight years and hopefully play for the team that went undefeated to a Class 4 state title but didn't want to give up his home-school education.

"I'd rather not have to choose between two things that are good for me," Williams said.

He spoke before the committee with his mother, Linda, who said 15 states have some form of open enrollment, which she called the "Tim Tebow rule."

Tebow was a home-schooled student in Jacksonville, but a similar Florida law allowed him to play high school football. He went on to start as a quarterback for a state championship team and then won two national titles and a Heisman Trophy at the University of Florida.

"He's an example of someone who benefited greatly from a law like this," Linda Williams said. "We shouldn't be limiting certain students just because of their education choice."

Lembke's wording of the bill, however, did manage to inadvertently cause a lot of opposition. Two witnesses, both high school principals, objected to the term calling sports participation a "right," saying playing sports is a privilege, and they also objected to the increase in the age limit. They also worried that the home-schooled or parochial students would not be held to the same standards of those who attend the actual high school.

In addition, Mark Lieb, the principal of Skyline High School in Urbana, a town about an hour north of Springfield, said there was no way to enforce the rigid attendance policies that schools have in order for students to play. 

"We have a baseball game today, and I assure you every person who will play in that game is in class," Lieb said. "With home schooling, its a lot harder to define what attendance actually is."

After the hearing, Lembke said a number of the concerns were misnomers.  He said there would be no "right" for students to play on sports teams, only to try out for them. In addition, he said he would be open to amending the age limit and lowering it back to 18. 

He said he would support an suggestion floated by Sen. Norma Champion, R-Springfield, that would allow districts to opt-out of the open-enrollment rule, but he said he didn't think the high school activities association's member schools would go along with that idea. 

While the odds for passing the bill this late in the semester seem small and no date to vote on it has been set, he said he hoped to attach the bill as an amendment later in the session.

"I'd like to see them work with the families, set up a standard and then everyone can live by that standard," Lembke said. "I'm willing to work through differences to see this get done."

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