More than 50,000 children in Tennessee are home-schooled, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association. Their parents save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year by opting to handle their children's education at their own expense -- while still paying taxes to support public schools.

In a world where home-schooling families were not dismissed as misfits and paranoiacs, public schools would be high-fiving them for helping keep government budgets balanced. Instead, home-schoolers remain an object of contempt and discrimination, at least among some in the public education establishment.

Witness the slight, calculated loosening by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association of broad restrictions against home-schoolers who want to take part in sports at public schools.

The relaxed constraints stem not from a sense of justice, but from fear that the General Assembly may take the matter into its own hands, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported. In fact, even the limited number of home-schoolers to whom the TSSAA now purports to grant access have no guarantees, because the new rule merely encourages, rather than requires, schools to let them play. And where permission is granted, players can be charged up to $300 per sport.

In short, the TSSAA wants credit for doing the right thing without actually doing the right thing. (Its website should include a tribute to Machiavelli.)

But even the veneer of fair play in the rule change was too much for one Knox County school board member.

"If you decide you're not going to be in public schools, you're giving up the extracurricular activities associated with public schools as well," Thomas Deakins said in the Knoxville paper.

To which a member of the Blount County Home Education Association had a fine riposte. Not letting home-schoolers play public school sports, Laurie Leslie said, "makes no more sense than saying everybody who chooses to drive their own car should be forbidden to use public buses ever again because you're choosing to do part of the work yourself."

How fortunate that most home-schooling parents don't reciprocate the smallness to which they're often subjected. Imagine how quickly they could torpedo education budgets by flooding schools across the state with 50,000-plus students. Heck, think what panic would grip superintendents from Schenectady to San Diego if 2 million home-schoolers nationwide showed up next fall demanding the average $10,000-a-year education that their parents' taxes have paid for but that they have previously forgone. Wonder how much cash would be left over for any sports then.

The timing of the TSSAA's rule change suggests the organization has a strategic, not a principled, interest in equality. So if state lawmakers plan to halt the exclusion of home-schoolers from public school athletics, they should not be dissuaded by the pre-emptive crumbs the TSSAA is cynically tossing. If the organization tweaked its rules only for fear that Republican legislators and a GOP governor will ensure equal access by force of law, it may reverse course the moment a bigoted, anti-home-schooling majority regains power in Nashville.

No sense leaving that to chance.

Killing us loudly

On the subject of Christina Aguilera's mangling of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl, I'll mostly defer to John Nolte, of the fun blog

He writes: "I was simply blown away (and moved) by how passionately the NFL puts its love for America and our troops out there for the entire world to see. ... But when it was Hollywood's turn to turn on the patriotism, one of their biggest stars couldn't even remember the words to her own National Anthem. ...

"Some fifteen years ago, I attended a heavyweight title fight in Nashville. George Jones sang the National Anthem and it was quite simply the most beautiful rendition I've ever heard. ... What a contrast. No wonder the NFL and country music continue to thrive as DVD sales sink and pop music collapses."

On the plus side, though I abhor her dime-a-dozen warbling, Aguilera managed to get out the notes more or less on pitch -- which was a step up from the offensively untalented halftime "entertainers," the Black Eyed Peas.

I'll never eat legumes again without a vague sense of terror.