Conservatives should support homeschool sports bill

Alabama’s conservative lawmakers have made remarkable progress in the arena of education reform since they took control of the State Legislature more than four-years ago. Still, a small yet deserving community of students continues to be unfairly treated by our government.

School vouchers for the poor? Check. Straight away, the new Republican majority gave low-income families access to scholarship dollars to fund private school tuition for children trapped in under-performing public schools.

Charter schools for the underserved? Check. Alabamians will soon be able to experiment with this type of government-funded yet bureaucratically-free school that has long been permitted in even the most liberal states.

Access to public school sports for home-schoolers? Sorry. Even though it’s a simple service that would only be fair and would make a huge difference for homeschooled students, it’s outlawed in — of all places — conservative-dominated Alabama. The Republican majority has repeatedly failed to change the law, but thankfully a conservative legislator is trying yet again to correct the disparity.

AL.com Opinion

State Rep. Mike Ball (R-Madison) has introduced legislation to allow homeschooled students to play on public school athletic teams, so long as they live in that school’s district, remain academically eligible, and pay whatever fees are required.

“My primary concern is that all children have as many opportunities as possible,” Ball said in a recent interview about the bill. The legislation is named after Heisman Trophy-winner Tim Tebow because he was homeschooled while playing football for his public school in Florida.

The number of students and districts impacted by the Tim Tebow Bill would be relatively insignificant – some estimate the number of homeschoolers in Alabama to be less than 25,000. It’s safe to assume only a fraction of those would even want to play public school athletics if allowed.

But the issue is more than one of numbers. It’s a matter of rights – parents who pay taxes for the system ought to have equal access to all of its services. After all, they are separate: enrolling in the curriculum doesn’t mean students must do extracurriculars; it shouldn’t be that to join extracurriculars, students must enroll in the curriculum. It’s also a matter of principle – conservatives should support greater freedoms for parents to pursue the best possible education for their child, without penalizing them by denying equal treatment.

Meanwhile, more than two-dozen states already give homeschoolers access to extracurricular activities. Their parents are already paying for it, and it has proven to be a non-issue where it’s been permitted. So what questions do our lawmakers still have? It might not matter.

“None of the answers make any difference, regardless of how true the facts may be, if the [questioner] is biased against homeschoolers to begin with,” reads an entry on the website dedicated to raising awareness of the bill. “The [questioner] must first ask themselves if they believe that all student-athletes of our state deserve an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities. That is the bottom line.”

Indeed. Arguments against the bill are easily countered, though biases are more stubborn. The most common objection is that parents will withdraw their academically ineligible children from public schools and homeschool them so they can continue playing sports.

That is utter nonsense.

Ask yourself: would parents who lack the time or motivation to ensure their children do well in public schools – with their free transportation, free instruction, free books, and oftentimes free breakfasts and lunches – trade all of that to handle it, and pay for it, by themselves? Of course not.

Homeschooling requires a great deal of sacrifice and hard work. I’ve met dozens of homeschooling parents and their children, and they are easily some of our state’s most decent citizens. I’m sure our lawmakers know a few, too. They should have to explain to them why homeschooled children of tax-paying Alabamians shouldn’t be allowed to play soccer for the local public school while children of illegal aliens can – an inconvenient fact that illustrates the unfairness of the situation.

Lawmakers should set aside any bias against homeschooling and recognize that it’s a small yet essential part of Alabama’s changing education landscape, and give these deserving students equal access to athletics.

Pass the bill … and play ball!