RICHMOND – Who should qualify to play school sports – home-schooled students? military children who move? pupils living on base? – was at the center of several committee meetings this morning in the Virginia General Assembly.
Brianna Mikeska, a senior at First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach, made the trek to Richmond to testify early about the hurdles she had to overcome when the Virginia High School League, which governs public school sports and some extracurricular activities, told her last fall she would have to sit out. The reason: The Navy had sent her family to Japan, but after several unhappy months there, her parents allowed her to return to Virginia Beach to live with family friends and finish her senior year.
The league ruled she would have to wait a year to rejoin the school’s cheerleading squad – or participate in other sports or activities, such as debate – under a policy meant to prevent students from moving around to pick which schools they want to play for.
Mikeska’s story made headlines and motivated several lawmakers to write letters on her behalf, said Del. Chris Stolle, R-Virginia Beach. Still, it took several months before the VHSL found a loophole through which to make her eligible.
By then, she’d missed out on several months of cheerleading, including the team’s competition, she told the House Students and Early Education Subcommittee.
HB1497 by Stolle would ban school divisions from joining the VHSL or any other governing organization if they doesn’t make students in Mikeska’s situation immediately eligible for sports and activities.
“Please pass this legislation,” Mikeska pleaded. “So that other military students don’t have to go through what I went through and miss out on opportunities to participate.”
The VHSL opposed the bill, which advanced to the full committee.
Meanwhile, the Senate Education and Health Committee deferred a proposal from committee Chair Steve Martin, a Chesterfield County Republican, to allow students living on military bases to join extracurricular activities at certain public schools.
His SB1191 would specifically apply to students who reside in on-base housing that falls in one school district but attended a public school in another nearby district, which is already allowed under law.
Those students can’t play sports under those circumstances, however, which the proposal seeks to remedy.
Speaking in support of that bill was Terrie Suit, Virginia Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security, who said the measure is narrowly drawn to help a handful of military children.
In addition to assisting those students, Suit said it could insulate Virginia-based military installations from future Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission actions by demonstrating the state is military friendly.
Hampton City Public School official Ann Bane was among those who testified against the bill. She cautioned that it could “open the flood gates” for students and cause challenges for local school divisions.
Home-schooled students also made their pitch for eligibility to play sports for their local schools, a request under consideration in both houses under so-called “Tim Tebow” legislation. The bills are nicknamed for the NFL quarterback who was allowed to participate in public school athletics as a Florida home schooler.
Those measures – HB1442, SB792 and SB812 – would prohibit public schools from joining an interscholastic governing organization, such as the VHSL, whose rules restrict home schoolers from participating in public school athletics and related activities.
The House Students and Early Education Subcommittee OK’d its version by Del. Rob Bell, R-Albermarle. The Senate Education and Health Committee put off taking action on its proposals, both from Louisa County Republican Sen. Tom Garrett.
Similar legislation cleared the House of Delegates for the first time last year before failing on a narrow vote in the Senate committee.
Supporters of those proposals argue that allowing home school students to get involved in extracurricular activities is a fairness issue because their families pay taxes that help support public education.
Opponents of the measure, including the Virginia High School League, the Virginia PTA and the Virginia Education Association, disagree.
They argued that “public school sports are for public school kids” and that changing the rules for home schoolers would create a double standard that unfairly disadvantages public school pupils.
Incorporating those students also would make it difficult to enforce discipline and grade and credit requirements for athletes, said Tim Dolan, assistant director of the VHSL.
Bell said he’s confident the change eventually will pass.
“I hope it gets passed this year,” said Micah Fitz, a home-schooled ninth-grader from Bristow who wants to play soccer for his local high school. “It was close last year. It would mean a lot.”
- Julian Walker and Kathy Adams, The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot