Districts grapple with home-school law

Eligibility questions abound as schools must allow all kids to play sports.

School sports teams may see more new faces this fall when Ohio districts for the first time must allow home-schooled students to join clubs and sports teams.

But school officials say the new law, which officially takes effect next month, provides no road map for how to balance student eligibility with access to sports and activities. And the Ohio High School Athletic Association, which didn’t push for the change, says districts are left to interpret how to enforce eligibility requirements.

“It’s one thing for a student to be legislatively given the opportunity to participate on a team or in an extracurricular activity, but for sports they have to be academically eligible,” OHSAA spokesman Tim Stried said.

The law requires all Ohio school districts to allow home-schooled students and some private school students to participate in extracurricular activities. The effective date is Sept. 29, but the OHSAA is urging districts to act as if the law is already in effect, allowing kids to participate in all fall activities.

The Virginia-based nonprofit, Home School Legal Defense Association, pushed for the law, saying it received calls from Ohio parents turned away by schools. The state joins 22 other states with laws granting equal access to sports and activities, according to the association.

Some Ohio schools have allowed home-schooled students to participate in activities but with varying criteria, such as enrolling in a set number of courses. Home-school students can now participate without taking a single class outside of their home.

Different rules

Home-schooled students must meet the same qualifications as their public school counterparts: maintain academic good standing, pay district fees and have the talent to make the team.

But OHSAA eligibility rules are more specific for in-school students: They must be enrolled in at least five courses and receive passing grades in those courses. In addition, many school districts set minimum Grade Point Average requirements to participate in extracurriculars.

Such requirements are not extended to home-schooled students.

OSHAA deputy commissioner Debbie Moore said there are no plans to change the bylaw specifying eligibility, leaving schools to decide whether students meet academic standards to participate. Ohio Department of Education spokesman John Charlton said ODE has no role in determining eligibility or helping schools do so.

Under the new law, students who leave school mid-year to learn at home are ineligible for one grading period, and previously ineligible public school students who become home-schooled cannot immediately become eligible.

Rep. Dave Hall, R-Millersburg, said he pushed for the law change to give home-schoolers equal access to activities. Hall, who attended public school, said he acted on behalf of many constituents who think it’s unfair to exclude home-schoolers.

“Kids aren’t thinking this is a home-school issue or a public school issue,” Hall said. “They just want to participate. When you bring kids together in any aspect, you’re bringing the parents together. It will allow everyone to know each other and break down barriers.”

Hall said home-school students would have to meet the same academic standards as their public school teammates, but school officials said doing so without infringing on parents’ choices will be difficult.

Home-school parents are required by law to submit to their home districts a curriculum plan and an annual assessment or report about their students’ achievement. School districts have no authority to challenge or verify information submitted.

West Carrollton School District Superintendent Rusty Clifford said determining eligibility based on parent reports means students are judged on two separate sets of criteria. West Carrollton, an open enrollment district, has allowed home-school students to participate in sports and activities if enrolled in some courses, which establishes a GPA and weekly opportunities to check progress for eligibility.

Clifford said no home-school students have expressed interest in playing high school sports in his district, but the district will follow any and all eligibility regulations.

“The bottom line is what’s best for kids,” Clifford said. “And if the child really wants to play, we don’t want to deny them the opportunity.”

Unknown impact

Stried said the law’s impact is not yet known. The Ohio Department of Education estimates 24,000 students were home-schooled in Ohio last year and about 4,500 in the Miami Valley.

“Our membership has never been open to outside students being a part of their team,” Stried said. “Nothing against home-schoolers, but that’s not how it’s evolved in Ohio.”

Stried said schools will have to enforce the eligibility requirements as they see fit.

“You can see his point that they’re paying school taxes but couldn’t participate,” Stried said. “But if they made the decision to home-school their student, that’s great for them, but that shouldn’t automatically translate into being able to do extracurriculars.”

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