When the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association announced in November that it had changed its longstanding policy that barred homeschooled students from participating on public school sports teams, it provoked a number of questions and concerns, and even some negative outcry.
In the two months since, school districts have begun to look at the issue to varying degrees. Some, such as the Brick Township School District, have moved quickly to put at least preliminary guidelines in place. Others are taking a slower approach.
Steven Timko, executive director of the NJSIAA, says the policy change by the association was a necessary one, needed to eliminate a conflict between the NJSIAA’s policies and those of the state Department of Education.
“We had a situation where, on the books, the Department of Education said that homeschooled students could participate,” Timko said. “Our rule conflicted with that, so we had to adjust it.”
Timko said the NJSIAA was advised of the conflict in September, and it had to be addressed quickly. But he noted that the association communicated with the various conferences around the state and the athletic directors association to keep its 400-plus member schools informed.
“It was out there,” Timko said, responding to criticisms that the change was dropped on the schools with little notice.
The NJSIAA policy and that of the Department of Education as well, however, do not mandate that districts allow homeschooled students to participate in high school athletics.
“The NJSIAA Executive Committee amended a clarification to the NJSIAA bylaws to make it clear a Board of Education could, at its discretion, allow a homeschooler to compete in interscholastic sports, provided both the school and the homeschooled student complied with newly-adopted NJSIAA guidelines,” a statement issued in November said.
Those guidelines, which are in a PDF posted with this story and can be found on the NJSIAA website, say a homeschooled student can participate so long as he or she lives in the district where they are seeking to play, get permission from the principal and prove academic equivalency. The guidelines also say students can’t use the homeschooling path to avoid a situation where they would be academically ineligible.
Timko said only a handful of schools across the state have contacted the NJSIAA so far regarding the change, seeking guidance on enacting a policy in their districts.
In New Jersey, more than 38,000 school-age children out of roughly 1.5 million are being schooled at home, according to estimates by the website Homeschooling A2Z, which extrapolated data from census reports and state data reports to come up with approximate numbers of homeschoolers for every state. The site estimates that nearly 1.4 millions students are homeschooled nationwide.
What is unclear is how many of those homeschooled New Jersey students are of high school age, because the number is just an estimate; the New Jersey Department of Education does not require registration of homeschooled students. New Jersey is one of 10 states that do not require registration, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association; every other state in the nation requires varying levels of notification of homeschooling and proof that a student is receiving an equivalent education at home.
Nationwide, estimates are that approximately 2.9 percent of all school-age children are homeschooled. While requirements vary from state to state, most have requirements for registration that allow them to collect more exact numbers on homeschooled students. And while some states do not permit homeschooled students to participate in interscholastic athletics through public schools – New York among them – a growing number allow it, under varying circumstances, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association.
“We have had some districts say they absolutely will not accept homeschooled students,” Timko said, declining to identify which districts have chosen that path.
The issue of academic equivalency – and proving it – is the crux of the debate over implementing policies in New Jersey.
The Brick school district has been among the first to enact a policy to determine a homeschooled student’s academic equivalency, in response to a student who sought to play ice hockey at Brick Memorial.
It was not without debate, however.
"I do not want to jeopardize any of the other students if they come back and say, 'Look, this is not sufficient,'" Brick Board of Education member Susan Suter said at a school board meeting in December, where the district approved accepting homeschooled students into interscholastic sports.
The district since has settled on a temporary policy of requiring any homeschooled student who wants to play a varsity sport at the district’s two high schools to submit a portfolio of the student’s work and have the student take tests proving proficiency equivalent to public school students in English, math, science and world languages, according to Brick Patch reports. A more permanent approach will be developed for the 2012-13 school year, the district has said.
Other districts are taking a slower approach.
The Freehold Regional School District, which includes Howell, has policies on its books that state it "is not required to provide any of the entitlements or privileges of pupils enrolled in the school district unless specifically provided in the federal special education law," according to the policy found here. An accompanying set of regulations defines how the district approaches it if a homeschooled student seeks to enter the public schools as a student, here.
The district's setup, which has different high schools being home to different academic concentrations, and students within the district being able to attend a high school that isn’t in their hometown as a result – creates an added wrinkle to the issue.
The NJSIAA guidelines say a homeschooled student must prove to the district that he or she lives within the district where the sports eligibility request is being made. “In school districts that serve more than one town, a student must be assigned to the school of record in the same manner as other students,” the guidelines state.
The Toms River School District also is looking into the policy, district spokeswoman Tammy Millar said.
“Currently our homeschooled students are not eligible for extra services and this includes athletic eligibility,” Millar said via email. “We are aware of the recent newly-adopted NJSIAA Suggested NJ Home Schooler Guidelines and are in the process of reviewing the guidelines to determine what is best for our district.”
Other districts have taken a unique approach.
Homeschooled students who live in the Barnegat School District have been permitted to participate in middle school athletics for the last five years, athletic director John Germano said.
“There have been several students who have participated at the middle school level,” he said. “Barnegat has always taken a kid-first approach. If there’s something we can offer a kid (through the schools) then we should.”
He said the district has a committee formulating academic equivalency standards and while he declined to say what types of things are being considered in those discussions, he said the bottom line is the district is willing to offer the opportunity.
“As long as the students can meet academic requirements, they should be allowed to participate,” he said. “These are taxpayers, too.”
At Central Regional High School – the only designated “choice school” in the Shore Conference – there have not been any requests as of yet for homeschooled students to participate in athletics. Choice schools are allowed to accept students from any town, according to the state Department of Education.
Superintendent Triantafillos Parlapanides said the district does have guidelines in place for homeschooled students who decide to return to the public school system for their education, and suggested they might be a starting point for homeschooled students in the district who might wish to play sports.
“We have Odyssey and Study Island (computerized programs that the district’s students use to enhance their math and language arts skills) and they have diagnostic tools,” Parlapanides said. “They can help us determine whether the homeschooled student is at grade level. But I’d have to rely on my guidance director” to help the district determine a student’s academic equivalency, he said.
That said, he said the district would want to be certain that its standards were sufficient.
“We wouldn’t want an ineligible athlete to negatively impact any team,” Parlapanides said.