COLUMBIA, S.C. — Home-schooled students in South Carolina could play sports at their local public school under a measure advanced Wednesday by a Senate panel.
An education subcommittee voted 6-3 on a bill giving homeschool students access to all extracurricular activities, including marching band, at the school they would otherwise attend. A separate bill approved Wednesday by the full Senate would give the option to students in public charter schools that don't offer sports.
Advocates say it's a matter of fairness, providing to all students the benefits of athletics and activities, from the camaraderie and teamwork building to scholarship opportunities. Opponents say they worry that homeschool students could take the slots of students at the school.
"It's an awesome thing for kids to be involved in sports, especially for homeschool kids," said Dwight Cauthen, who spoke about his 15-year-old son "whose learning difference is addressed better at home."
"He's a great golfer. He wants to play golf but doesn't want to go to the school. In our situation, that works. From a personal side, this really impacts kids," Cauthen said. "The coach wants him to play. The kids want him to play, and it'd be a great thing for him and the team."
Officials estimate that 18,000 students are taught at home in South Carolina. How many would pursue the option is unknown.
Oran Smith of the Palmetto Family Council said 28 states already allow it, including Florida, where it allowed NFL quarterback Tim Tebow to play for a successful high school program. Of about 50,000 children home-schooled in Florida, Smith said 315 participate in athletics at their local schools.
Opponents include the South Carolina High School League, which regulates high school and middle school sports. Commissioner Jerome Singleton says its members believe students should attend the school they represent. Athletics support the education process and involve shared experiences both during and after school hours, he said.
"A student athlete serves as a role model or leader in the school," Singleton said.
Sen. Chip Campsen, the bill's main sponsor, said it probably is better for students to attend the school their team represents to fully receive the social benefits.
"But that doesn't mean there are no benefits," said Campsen, R-Isle of Palms.
He noted his son played football in Mount Pleasant for another school's team because his had none, and while he didn't get the praise he otherwise would have walking down the hall, he enjoyed playing. He also noted his sons competitively surf, and those contestants don't attend the same school.
State law requires public school students to have a passing grade average to participate in sports.
The state Association of School Administrators worries that state law allowing homeschooling is too lax. It allows parents three options to legally homeschool: Getting approval by their local school board and taking state-standardized tests; becoming members of the South Carolina Association of Independent Home Schools; or joining a group that has at least 50 members. In all three options, the parent teachers must have at least a high school diploma or GED.
Beth Phibbs of the administrators' association said the first two options provide accountability. But she urged senators to revisit the third before passing the bill. She said it's particularly a problem in elementary schools, which sometimes get students who have supposedly been homeschooled through that third option but can't even write their name.