The Hamilton County Board of Education will reconsider tonight allowing home-schooled students to participate on school athletic teams. But such a change may only affect a small segment of the home-schooled population.
In July, the board followed administrators' recommendation and voted 6-2 to keep home-school students from playing on school teams. The debate was opened up last year when the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association approved a bylaw allowing participation in extracurricular athletics at member schools, pending certain qualifications and the approval of the local school board.
But some home-school families say that regardless of the school board's decision tonight, it won't correct the unfairness in TSSAA's rules, which still keep an estimated 90 percent of home-school students ineligible. And they worry that coaches will begin cherry-picking their best players and draining talent from home-school athletic leagues.
If the board gives its OK tonight, TSSAA will allow home-school students to start playing on the county's middle and high school athletic teams by the winter sports season, said Assistant Superintendent Lee McDade. He said an informal poll last year found little interest among principals in allowing in home-school students. But at the time, he said, they were missing information on the new bylaw and how it would be implemented.
"That was it: yes or no," he said. "As a principal you're going to say no to that."
He said some principals were wary that coaches would start recruiting top home-schooled athletes from across the county onto their teams. But the rule allows students to play only for the public school in the district where they live.
"Once all that was laid out in front of them, they understood and were fine with it," McDade said.
School board Chairman Mike Evatt said he, too, has changed his mind since receiving more information -- and after hearing from several home-school families who want their children to be allowed to play.
Not all allowed in
What: Hamilton County Board of Education meeting
When: 5:30 p.m. today
Where: Board chambers at the central office, 3074 Hickory Valley Road
But the new rule might prevent many students from participating, said Jim Steffes, who coaches the cross-country team of the Chattanooga Southeast Tennessee Home School Association, which represents more than 1,500 families in the area.
Because TSSAA requires that home-schooled students be registered with the local school district, Steffes said the estimated 90 percent who register through a church-related home school won't be eligible to play.
District registration subjects families to regulations -- such as minimum hours of instruction and teacher qualifications -- that don't apply to a church-related home school.
"For most home-schoolers, it's not worth it," Steffes said. "One of the primary reasons families home-school is because they want the freedom to educate their child the way they see fit."
Matthew Gillespie, TSSAA assistant executive director, said the regulation is in place to ensure that home-school students meet the same academic standards as those from public and private member schools.
"There had to be some academic checks and balances," he said.
It's estimated that more than 80,000 students are taught at home in Tennessee. The number of home-school students registered through Hamilton County was unavailable Wednesday. Sheryl Randolph, the director of the district's division that oversees home schools, did not respond to phone calls and emails Tuesday and Wednesday.
Steffes said he would prefer the athletic association to recognize home-school leagues as member schools, so they could participate in post-season play. Currently, teams such as his can only play in independent post-season tournaments, though they compete against area public and private schools during the regular season. He said the new rule doesn't address the complexity of the state's home-school system.
"I think their actions are only addressing a minute population of home-schoolers," Steffes said. "Whatever the school board does is insignificant. What TSSAA does or doesn't do is very significant."