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Home-Schoolers Gain Access to School Activities

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Parents who educate their children at home increasingly are trying to force open the doors of local public schools to have access to services they cannot offer at home.

In legislatures and courtrooms in several states, parents demanding that their children have access to public school activities or classes have generated a flurry of activity in recent months.

Gov. Phil Batt of Idaho last week signed into law a dual-enrollment policy requiring public schools to accept students from home and private schools for a portion of the day.

And a federal judge in southwestern Pennsylvania is expected this week to rule on the fate of a teenager who is schooled at home but wants to join the baseball team at the local public high school.

In Massachusetts, meanwhile, three state judges have issued preliminary injunctions since December that barred the state interscholastic athletic association from preventing home-school students from playing on public high school teams.

"This is something that is cropping up in a bunch of different ways in a bunch of different states," said Scott W. Somerville, a staff lawyer for the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va. "It's alive."

Dual Standards

At the center of the disputes is the issue of fairness. Advocates of an open-door policy believe that children should not be penalized because their parents choose to educate them at home or in private schools.

"Do we believe they are betraying something precious to the community and should be punished for it, or do we believe these are decent, caring parents who aren't hurting anybody?" Mr. Somerville said.

Opponents, however, said such policies create a system of dual standards. In many districts, for example, public school students must follow academic and attendance rules to participate in sports. But there is no way to determine whether the home-school student has followed the same rules.

To play interscholastic sports in the Frazier school district outside Pittsburgh, students must maintain a C-minus average and attend school regularly. Home-school students cannot be similarly monitored.

"It's just not possible to treat them the same," said Superintendent Frederick L. Smeigh, whose district is embroiled in a lawsuit brought on behalf of a 14-year-old home-school student who wants to play on the school baseball team.

Mr. Smeigh questioned, for instance, how just it would be for a public school student who has followed all the rules to lose his spot on the team to a home-school student whose athletic ability is greater.

"Home-school students have a choice. They can come to regular school or [have] home schooling," he said. "We can't equalize it."

Open to All

The new Idaho law is one of the most liberal of its type. It requires public schools to accommodate students who attend either private or home schools.

They may attend classes, participate in extracurricular activities, or any combination of the two.

That means a home-school student could take a chemistry class or a computer course from the public school and the rest of his classes at home or at a private institution. The student could also play on the basketball team or join the French club.

Under the law, full-time public school students will be given preference for academic courses, but ability will be a criterion in extracurricular activities.

How school districts will be reimbursed by the state for costs of compliance is yet to be determined. And there are no estimates of how many students would be affected because there is no agency in Idaho that tracks students who are schooled at home.

"It's going to be an administrative nightmare to begin with," said Mike Friend, the executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators.

But there are questions of far greater import that remain to be answered, he said.

What happens, for example, to a student who transfers from one public school to another after the beginning of the year and finds the chemistry labs full? If a home-school student were enrolled in one of the labs, would he be booted out to accommodate the transfer student?

Or could a student who was going to lose his academic eligibility to play sports switch to home schooling so he could play?

Previous attempts to pass a dual-enrollment bill had been stymied in the Idaho Senate, but this year it passed easily.

Observers attribute the change, in part, to a more conservative political climate.

A precipitating factor, however, was a move on the part of the Idaho High School Activities Association to bar home-school students from participating in extracurricular activities. Before the association had a chance to adopt the policy, the legislature passed the law.

A Question of Ownership

The majority of such disputes, in fact, stem from prohibitions on participation by nonpublic students in extracurricular activities, especially interscholastic sports.

In the past four months, Robert R. Waldo, a lawyer, has taken on the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association on behalf of four home-school students who were barred from athletics.

In all four cases, the court ruled that the students had been discriminated against and issued preliminary injunctions against the association, Mr. Waldo said.

In South Carolina, Rep. Michael Fair has introduced legislation that would require districts to permit home-school students to take part in interscholastic sports.

"As taxpayers, we all should have access to the public schools," Mr. Fair said. But the education establishment "is arrogant and proprietary," he said.

Cyndy Geraghty's 16-year-old son Josh, who has always been home-schooled, wants to play hockey in college, but the Keene, N.H., school district would not let him play on the high school team, which he says he needs to do to stay competitive.

So he is now enrolled in public school for the first time, taking four courses to qualify to play.

Ms. Geraghty said her son has enjoyed his classes--particularly biology, because he has access to a lab--and likes the social life. But the novelty is wearing off. "He's missing his freedom," said Ms. Geraghty. "As the year has worn down, it's turned into a lot of drudgery and wasted time."

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