Fifth-grader Lauryn Johnson is at least four years away from participating in high school sports.
That doesn't mean she isn't already dreaming about someday competing for the drill team of her local high school. As a home-schooled student, however, some feel her opportunities may be limited unless the Utah Legislature takes action to ensure her ability to participate. Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Lehi, is hoping SB61 will ensure Johnson's dream of trying out for drill team becomes a reality.
"It gives an opportunity for those high school and private school students who want to participate in activities equal access to facilities and programs that their parents are already paying for," Madsen said in the Senate's Education Committee meeting Thursday morning. Johnson was one of two home-schooled students who spoke in support of the bill.
Madsen acknowledged that many home-schooled students are already playing sports and participating in activities at public schools. His problem is that it is up to individual schools and districts to decide who gets to play, and he wants all students to be ensured the opportunity to participate.
"This bill tries to take the best experiences of those students … and use that as a standard across the state," Madsen said. "What this bill does not do is give them any advantage over fully enrolled public school students."
The Utah High School Activities Association and the Utah Education Association disagree. Both spoke against the bill in Wednesday's meeting.
"First, let us make it very clear this is not a fight over whether or not home-schooled students will be able to participate; they already have that opportunity under the current rules of the UHSAA," said Bart Thompson, assistant director of the UHSAA, which oversees high school sports. "We feel placing rules of eligibility for high school extracurricular activities into statute is ill-advised; our greatest concern with SB61 is the fact that it seeks to significantly alter the scholastic eligibility rules of the UHSAA by statute for only home-school students."
The sticking point is that when determining eligibility for home-schooled students, parents would be allowed to submit an affidavit indicating the student has mastered the material in each course and that they are maintaining satisfactory progress. Public and private school students are required to maintain a 2.0 GPA in order to participate in extracurricular activities.
"When an individual, any individual, participates in a league or association, they accept the eligibility rules that all other members of that association are expected to follow," Thompson said. "This legislation seeks to circumvent that basic rule of fairness. … The purpose of our rules is to maintain a level playing field for all students."
Thompson also wondered if there was even an issue significant enough to warrant a law to correct it.
"To our association SB61 seems to be in search of a problem which does not exist," he said. "To our knowledge home school students have not been nor are discriminated against in any way in the review of the evidence provided to demonstrate their compliance with academic eligibility standards."
UHSAA attorney Mark Van Wagoner questioned whether the bill was constitutional.
"It creates a class of students that has preferential treatment," he said. "All this does is advance a certain category of students."
Madsen said not only does it create more fairness for home-schooled students, but it is badly needed as many parents do not know their options. He said that while the UHSAA has rules allowing home-schooled students to participate in public school activities and athletics, the association does not have the power to make districts comply with the rule. Also, many parents are turned away and do not know they have the option to appeal to the UHSAA.
Madsen gave a couple of examples of students who'd been denied access to public school activities, and afterward he and his wife recounted a neighbor whose son was a home-schooled student who played soccer for a local high school. After an opponent protested his participation, he was kicked off the team, Madsen said. He said it is difficult for these students to challenge the school or district because they don't know what the rules or their rights are.
"They don't know that I'm within my rights to be here, to participate," Madsen said. And as to whether or not parents would like in affidavits for so their children could participate, he said that was a "red herring."
"There are abuses within the public school system," Madsen said.
The bill passed out of the committee with a favorable recommendation. Two members of the committee voted against the bill saying they agreed with the UHSAA and UEA that it created unfairness in the eligibility standards.