The New York Times
June 22, 2005
STRASBURG, Pa., June 16 – Mary Mellinger began home-schooling her eldest sons, Andrew and Abram, on the family’s 80-acre dairy farm five years ago, wanting them to spend more time with their father and receive an education infused with Christian principles. Home schooling could not, however, provide one thing the boys desperately wanted – athletic competition.
But the school district here, about 60 miles west of Philadelphia, does not allow home-schooled children to play on its teams. So Mrs. Mellinger reluctantly gave in and allowed the boys to enroll in public high school, where Andrew, 17, runs track and Abram, 15, plays football and both perform with the marching and concert bands.
“We grieved about losing the time we had with the boys,” Mrs. Mellinger, 41, said outside the 150-year-old red brick house where Mellingers have lived for seven generations. “It seems so unfair. We’re taxpayers, too.”
Mrs. Mellinger’s plaint has become the rallying cry for an increasing number of parents across the country who are pushing more public schools to open their sports teams, clubs, music groups and other extracurricular organizations to the nation’s more than 1 million home-educated students.
This year, bills were introduced in at least 14 state legislatures, including Pennsylvania’s, to require school districts to open extracurricular activities, and sometimes classes, to home-schooled children, say groups that track the issue. Fourteen states already require such access, while most others leave the decision to local school boards.
But many districts strongly resist the idea, citing inadequate resources, liability issues, questions about whether students would be displaced from teams and clubs, and concerns about whether home-schooled children could be held to the same academic and attendance standards. In some states, districts also lose state aid when children leave to be home schooled, although that is not the case in Pennsylvania.
The push for access is in many ways a new chapter for the home-schooling movement, which for years viewed public education as a hostile, overly regulated system that should be avoided at all costs.
But as the movement has gained more acceptance and grown in size and diversity, more parents want their children to be involved in school activities like chess, basketball or Advanced Placement courses, say home-schooling advocates and educators. Even people who do not want the services argue that other families should not be denied them, seeing access as a civil rights issue for people who pay school taxes.
“We found enough activities within the home-school community to satisfy our needs,” said Maryalice Newborn, who runs a support network for home-school families outside Pittsburgh. “But if somebody else wants to participate, shouldn’t they have that right?”
Christopher Klicka, senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association, a nonprofit group based in Virginia, said polls showed that a majority of home-school parents remained wary of letting their children participate in public school activities. But as earlier battles over the right to home schooling fade from memory, that attitude is likely to change, he said.
“The further we get from those early days, when there was real persecution, the more people will forget,” Mr. Klicka said. “And they will want equal access more.”
In Oregon, Colorado and other states that distribute aid based on enrollment, some districts have begun encouraging home-schooled students to take courses, typically in advanced subjects like calculus or foreign languages, said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit group.
But most states do not provide per-pupil aid for extracurricular activities, so there is less incentive to allow home-schooled students to participate, Mr. Griffith said.
In Pennsylvania, where the number of home-schooled students has risen steadily in recent years to more than 24,400 children, more districts each year are allowing those students to participate in extracurricular activities, and sometimes classes.
But nearly half of the state’s 501 school districts prohibit such access, including many here in rural Lancaster County, a conservative area with one of the largest populations of home-schooled students in the state. Stephany Baughman of Strasburg led the fight to change that policy in one of the districts last year.
Mrs. Baughman has always home-schooled her four children, calling it a way “to speak into their lives.” But two years ago, her eldest child, Derek, wanted to join the high school soccer team. The Lampeter-Strasburg district said no. So she petitioned the school board last year to change its policy, turning the drive into a civics lesson for her children.
The board refused to change its policy. So she sent Derek, 15, to a private Christian academy, where he has played on the varsity soccer and basketball teams. Mrs. Baughman hopes the state legislation requiring access will pass so that her 12-year-old son, Brandon, can join the high school lacrosse team while continuing to be educated at home.
“Some families don’t want to mix in,” said Mrs. Baughman, who gave up a career as a commercial photographer to teach her children. “We’re not like that.”
Brian Barnhart, assistant superintendent of the 3,250-student Lampeter-Strasburg School District, said the school board remained unconvinced that home-schooled children could be held to the same standards as public school students.
Mr. Barnhart said many parents also worried that home-schooled students would take coveted positions from public school students. “We see extracurricular activities as a reward for students who are complying and who are working through school,” he said.
Tim Allwein, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said many boards believed that allowing home-schooled students into sports and clubs would be an administrative nightmare that raised questions about costs, transportation and liability. For that reason, the association opposes the state bill, saying the decision should be left to the individual districts.
“The single main ingredient to making this work is to have a school board that is open to the idea,” Mr. Allwein said. “Not all of them have been.”
Such arguments infuriate home-schooling advocates, who say hundreds of districts in many states have resolved those issues.
“It’s institutional prejudice,” said Senator Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican whose wife is home-schooling the couple’s four school-age children. “It’s offensive.”
The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state teachers’ union, has joined the school board association in opposing the legislation, which was sponsored by State Senator Bob Regola, a Republican from near Pittsburgh, and would require districts to allow home-schooled students to participate in extracurricular activities.
Nevertheless, the bill was approved by the Senate Education Committee, and opponents and supporters give it a strong chance of clearing both houses of the Republican-controlled legislature this fall. It is not clear, however, whether Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat, would sign it.
“He will review the bill when it reaches his desk, but he believes that this is a local decision,” said Kate Philips, the governor’s spokeswoman.
Both Abram and Andrew Mellinger said that if the bill became law, they would probably return home for their education but continue playing sports and music at the high school.
“I’d love to have them back,” said Mrs. Mellinger, who is also home-schooling three of her four other children. “But I can’t provide all the opportunities they need. We can practice music. But we can’t put together an orchestra.”
* Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company