A potential law would allow virtual and homeschooled students to join public school athletic teams and activities in Kansas.
But opponents of the bill, including the state’s high school athletics governing body, say the measure would undermine the academic component of participation in school activities and competition.
Lawmakers on the House Committee on K-12 Education Budget on Tuesday held a hearing for HB 2030, which would authorize non-public school students and part-time public school students to participate in any activities regulated by the Kansas State High School Activities Association.
In the context of the bill, “non-public school” would refer to students enrolled in any alternatives to traditional, publicly funded education, such as homeschooling, virtual schools and non-accredited private schools.
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Although a separate bill passed last year allows families to enroll their children in any Kansas school district regardless of residency but subject to space limitations, any nonpublic school students affected by this year’s proposed bill would have to live within district boundaries to play for or participate in any school activities.
Local school districts and KSHSAA would be prohibited from creating any policies barring such participation, although schools could still require students to pay any activities fees or enroll in any specific classes that would otherwise also be required of public school participants.
The measure comes back to the committee after failed attempts in prior years to pass legislation to open up public schools’ sports teams and activities to non-public students.
While 25 states allow homeschooled students to access interscholastic activities — five of which require the approval of the local district — Kansas is part of a separate group of 20 states that do not allow any participation, according to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education.
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Supporters say current Kansas high school sports policy discriminates against private school taxpayers
John Eck, a parent of a Kansas high schooler, told the committee that over the last semester, he and his wife had decided to move their daughter to only part-time enrollment in the high school, partly out of a desire to hold her to higher academic, behavioral and ethical standards than they had seen at their daughter’s high school.
But because of their daughter’s part-time public school enrollment, she was not allowed to play for either the public school teams, as members of KSHSAA, or for unaffiliated homeschooling leagues, which bar students who are even partially enrolled in public schools.
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“The current law allows for part-time students, yet these students are denied a right given to homeschool students and public school students,” Eck said. “This seems discriminatory to me. HB 2030 rightly opens up these sports leagues and puts the determination back with the taxpaying parents, where it belongs.”
Philip Hoppe, a Colby pastor who homeschools seven children alongside his wife, told the committee by virtual call that he had previously lived in Minnesota, a state that does allow homeschooled student participation in interscholastic activities.
“I know it can be done, and it can be done with a relative amount of ease,” Hoppe said.
In northwest Kansas especially, it can be hard to find activities for older children, Hoppe said. Most communities don’t have recreation leagues at the level of many larger, eastern Kansas communities, and the majority of children and teens participate in schools through their schools.
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He pointed out Weskan High School, a school near the Colorado border which in recent years stepped away from full KSHSAA affiliation as part of what Hoppe said was an effort to be able to include homeschooled students. Weskan High is now what KSHSAA deems an “approved school,” meaning it is not a organization member but is cleared to compete with KSHSAA schools in non-championship events.
“This is a good bill for society and our communities because I don’t think we want those who are not participating in public education and those who are to become too far removed from each other,” Hoppe said.
Opponents say HB 2030 undermines Kansas public schools’ foundation of high academic standards
Bill Faflick, executive director of KSHSAA, said the organization and its 759 member schools oppose the bill because it undermines the organization’s goal of concurrently promoting activity participation and academics.
Currently, students must meet six eligibility criteria — scholarship and academics, enrollment, age, semesters of attendance, citizenship and transfer status — in order to participate in KSHSAA activities. Specifically with academics, students must be enrolled in and passing at least five classes to be eligible.
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“The goal of eligibility standards is really two-fold,” Faflick said. “First is to provide accountability for students at the base level, which promotes student achievement while promoting positive behaviors, and helping student academically and via the development of social-emotional skills and positive school and community culture.
“Second is to help support a level playing field, where students coming on the same team and against opposing teams are held to the same minimum standards,” he continued.
Athletic and activity participation, Faflick said, are some of the best motivators for students, particularly those deemed at risk of not graduating, to study and do well in school.
The bill would undermine that, then, because KSHSAA could exercise little, if any, oversight over the academic standards and minimums of non-public schools, he said. Nothing would stop a public school student who is failing classes from dropping out but continuing to participate in activities, under the bill’s provisions.
“We don’t want that for any student,” Faflick said. “We want kids to be completers, and we want kids to be prepared as a result of their opportunity in school to be taught and to be coached by sponsors who want that same thing.”
Others, like Deena Horst on behalf of the Kansas State Board of Education, said HB 2030 would harm the sense of community fostered around high school sports.
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“Having parents and grandparents who are taxpayers isn’t the same as being a part of the student body in which you participate all day with the others who participate in your community and your activity,” said Horst, state education board member from Salina.
The bill, as written, also doesn’t currently address the issue of competitive teams that hold tryouts, as well as what would happen if a non-public school student were to fail to pass a tryout.
Kansas HB 2030 discussion takes turn to public school criticism
Republican committee members were sharply skeptical of claims that the bill would undermine academics in high school, especially when many Kansas students score in the lowest two of four levels on the annual state assessments and amid falling scores on national assessments.
In contrast, homeschooled students do not take the state assessments, and it is difficult to assess the their academic performance as a whole group, given homeschooling families decentralized approach to education.
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Rep. Susan Estes, R-Wichita, said she had concerns KSHSAA’s current policies are overly broad and have little leeway for students who aren’t trying to game the system.
“We could be so careful about the bad actors that we have the unintended consequence of punishing students who are (doing the right thing),” Estes said.
Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican who chairs the committee, said she was dismayed that some children in Kansas are barred from participating in KSHSAA events, “because all kids have parents who are renting or paying taxes.”
“For us to talk about diversity and inclusion and the needs of a variety of children, this, to me, strikes the opposite of that,” Williams said. “But that’s just me giving an opinion.”
The committee is expected to work the bill in the coming weeks for potential passage to the full House.
Rafael Garcia is an education reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 785-289-5325. Follow him on Twitter at @byRafaelGarcia.