Sunday, February 19, 2012

"Tebow" bill in Virginia would disadvantage public-school students

Virginia's House of Delegates has recently passed a bill that would have the effect of allowing home-schooled children to participate in public-school sports teams. In principle, the legislation is a good idea. Public-school sports teams are publicly-financed, and home-schooled children should be allowed to participate on the same basis as other children. To do otherwise is to discriminate against home-schooling.

An op-ed in this morning's Washington Post argues that the legislation will result in some public-school children losing their spots on sports teams and that some of these children may be more deserving because of their ties to the school. The author is right that some existing public-school students will be displaced, but students are also displaced when new students enroll in a school or when the distribution of talent changes at a school (e.g., when other students work out harder and out-compete them). No student is guaranteed a spot on a school team, and a hard fact of life is that limited spots will mean that some students will be left aside. So, my concern isn't with fair competition from home-schooled students.

The concern instead is about unfair competition. Student athletes are subject to a host of requirements regarding their academic progress and behavior. The academic requirements include course grade and GPA standards across the entire curriculum and on a quarterly or semester basis. In Virginia, public-school students must also pass standardized tests across a broad set of subjects to advance in some grades and subjects.

The Virginia bill applies some standards to home-schooled students. In particular, these students would have to show evidence of academic progress for two consecutive years and would also be subject to some disciplinary standards. However, the home-school standards are much weaker than the public school standards. For example, annual academic progress for home-schoolers can be demonstrated by passing the math and language arts sections of a national standardized test at the 23 percentile. Thus, home-schooled students don't have to master the same breadth of subject material as public-school students and don't have to show the same consistency in performance (are subject to a single annual measure rather than period-by-period measures).

Similarly, the disciplinary requirements are different. Parents are not required to maintain the same standards within their homes or report any in-home disciplinary problems. Short of the child coming to the attention of law enforcement, there would be no record of disciplinary issues.

My guess is that most home-school students would be able to meet the public-school standards (just as most public-school students do). However, the lax rules for home-school students mean that some could be advantaged relative to public-school students.

The different standards also create some perverse incentives. The Washington Post op-ed complains that allowing home-school students to participate in public-school sports could encourage more home-schooling. However, we don't want unfair restrictions on sports participation to drive decisions to home-school. If unfair restrictions are keeping some students in public schools, a shift to more home-schooling when the playing field is leveled could be a good thing. There is nothing perverse about the incentives created by a level playing field.

Problems might arise, however, from students shifting into home-schooling to evade the behavioral and academic restrictions placed on other students. Sadly, there are unscrupulous public-school sports coaches and unscrupulous parents who will bend the eligibility rules to get children onto particular sports teams. For example, residency rules for children are frequently an issue. Under the proposed Virginia rules, a coach could encourage parents to remove a child with marginal academic or behavioral performance from a public school, substitute a marginally-qualified tutor for instructional purposes, and still have the child participate in sports.

The Virginia legislation purports to be fair and even-handed but does not appear to be. The Virginia Senate has a chance to correct some of these problems by applying equivalent standards to home-school and public-school students.

The proposed legislation also has a sunset clause and would expire on June 30, 2017. The Virginia Senate would do well to maintain this clause but also require an independent evaluation of the effects of the legislation on student outcomes.