A battle appears to be brewing among home-school advocates, legislators and the Utah High School Activities Association.
Just a few weeks ago, legislators who were concerned about the ability of home-school, charter school and online students to participate in extra curricular activities at public high schools were praising the UHSAA staff and members for being so responsive to their concerns and altering the association's bylaws to make it possible for those students to participate.
But the UHSAA's recent opposition to SB37 has reignited the friction between the two groups.
Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, is sponsoring SB37 and said in a committee hearing that he hoped it would create a uniform, statewide standard for establishing athletic eligibility for home-school students. The bill addresses the issue, saying that athletic eligibility is established by "the individual providing the primary instruction of a home-school student" submitting an affidavit that indicates, "the student is mastering the material in each course or subject being taught; and the student is maintaining satisfactory progress towards advancement or promotion."
Currently home-school students must meet whatever requirements are imposed by their home school districts. Madsen said some districts make this task more difficult than others and suggested it would be more equitable to all students if the standard didn't vary from district to district.
UHSAA attorney Mark Van Wagoner spoke against the bill last week in the Senate Education Committee, which passed the bill out with a favorable recommendation and is up for debate on the floor of the Senate this week.
"It simply gives an advantage to one group of students that we don't give to other students," said Van Wagoner. "Every other student has their school work evaluated by a third party ... It's hard to persuade these people that parents won't be objective."
He said that students are most often asked to take a test or submit a portfolio of their work to gain eligibility, although some issue grades to their children or participate in online classes.
Paul Mero, the director of the Sutherland Institute, spoke on behalf of SB37 and said as a home-school parent, he's offended by the implication that parents would commit a crime in order to make their children athletically eligible.
"We go through way too much sacrifice to have some bureaucrat's attorney imply that somehow I'm a liar ... That's just disgusting," he said. "We're under the threat of perjury; I take umbrage at that implication; It makes me feel like a second-class citizen."
Just two days after the UHSAA spoke against the bill, Madsen opened two new bill files, one titled "High School Activities Association Accountability" and the other titled "Standards for Acceptance of School Transfer Applications."
The accountability bill (SB232) has no text, but the standards for transfer applications (SB223) says that students can't be denied enrollment simply because they plan to participate in varsity athletics. When told of the bills, Mero said he suggested to Madsen that the senator should file the bill regarding accountability of the UHSAA to encourage a dialogue about just exactly what the UHSAA is and who they are accountable to.
"I'm glad he did it," said Mero. "There's no threat. There can be. I'm human and I'm not immune to constantly having dogs nipping at my heels ... What this is is 'Let's have a conversation about what these people are.' Who are those guys? Unfortunately the way these things work, a piece of legislation has to drive that discussion."
Van Wagoner said the UHSAA will continue to oppose legislation that it considers unnecessary, unfair or harmful to the stated purpose of the nearly 100-year-old association. He said the bill regarding transfers, as he reads it, does not mean that UHSAA officials would have to give those students athletic eligibility, only that they would be allowed to enroll in any school. The UHSAA plans to oppose that bill, as well as SB37.
"It's interesting to me that we have not even one piece of anecdotal evidence that this (eligibility requirement) is onerous or burdensome," Van Wagoner said. "It appears to be an issue of power, not whether it's inconvenient or unfair but who should have the power."
Madsen did not return calls Tuesday from the Deseret Morning News, but Mero said the issue is one of fairness.
"There is strong discriminatory sentiments about home-schoolers in other school districts. I have had a wonderful experience," said Mero of the involvement of his children at Jordan High School. "I wish every home-school family could experience what we are experiencing in the Jordan School District ... And that's all this bill does (SB37)."
Van Wagoner said the association is ready and willing to solve problems but will resist any effort by any special interest group to change or control their rules for their own purposes."It is clear to me this is not intended to resolve an issue; it's intended to carve out an exception for a very small group of students," Van Wagoner said. "We feel confident the Utah Legislature as a whole would not play favorites with any classification of students."