February 10, 2014

Public schools pushed to open sports teams to outsiders

House bill may compel teams to accept virtual school students.

By Maureen Hayden CNHI Statehouse Bureau

---- — INDIANAPOLIS — Dimitri and Wyatt Taylor hope to go out for sports at their local high school when they enter the ninth grade this fall. It may take legislative action to allow them to compete.

The twins from Johnson County attend a publicly funded “virtual” charter school with no sports program of its own. They’re counting on House Bill 1047, which would compel 408 schools that belong to the Indiana High School Athletic Association to open their sports programs to about 6,000 students enrolled in the web-based schools.

The bill faces fierce opposition from the IHSAA, which is already forced to accommodate many of a growing number of students who opt out of traditional public schools.

“I played sports when I was in high school, and I’d like my boys to have that same opportunity,” said Stacy Taylor, the twins’ mother. “There’s real value in learning how to play well with others.”

IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox doesn’t dispute that, but he doesn’t believe public high schools should have to bend their rules for students not in their system.

“They’ve made a choice to attend a virtual school, and we support their right to do that,” said Cox. “But with those choices come with consequences. And one of those consequences is giving up the extra-curricular programs at their local schools.”

A year ago, under pressure from the Legislature, the IHSAA made accommodations for home-schooled students who want to participate in sports.

Under its new rules, a home-schooled student must attend one class per day at his or her local public high school to play on one of its teams. The student athlete must also have been home-schooled for the previous three years and complete all statewide exams authorized by the Indiana Department of Education.

Showing up for one class a day was a deal-maker for IHSAA member schools. That allows schools to count the students for the purpose of state funding. The state doles out education dollars based on the number of bodies sitting in classrooms.

State-supported virtual charters present a different scenario. The web-based schools also count enrolled students for purposes of state funding. Requiring their student-athletes to show up at a traditional public school would force those virtual charters to cede some per-pupil funding.

Indiana approved the public funding of virtual charter schools in 2009. About 200 students statewide enrolled during their first year. Enrollment is now up to about 6,000 students, compared to the 1 million students enrolled in traditional public schools.

One of the IHSAA’s concerns about opening sports to students of virtual charters is the potential for unfair competition. Students not forced to sit in a traditional classroom all day have an advantage over those who do, Cox said.

“There’s no accountability for how they’re spending their time,” he said. “How do we know that student isn’t out on the driving range all day hitting buckets of balls, then trying out for the golf team?”

Stacy Taylor, whose sons are in their fourth year at the Indiana Connections Academy, said opponents of the bill don’t understand how virtual charters work. The web-based schools require students to complete hours of daily coursework, and pass the same standardized tests that are given to traditional school students.

Taylor wonders if the IHSAA just hasn’t caught up with changes in education.

“Ten years ago, who would have even thought that Indiana would be offering online public education to thousands of students?” she said.

Schools and legislatures around the country are dealing with the issue, with the rise of students in non-traditional settings. The IHSAA said 27 states currently prohibit what it calls “non-traditional students” — those who are home-schooled or enrolled in publicly funded charter schools without sports programs — from participating in school athletics. Some states do allow it but leave the final decision on who plays to local school districts.

The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, doesn’t require public schools to open a spot on a team for a virtual charter student. But it would require schools to allow those students to try out for a team and be judged just like other enrolled students.

The bill’s opponents predict resentment over what they call “displacement.” At a House hearing, Rep. Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes, voted against the bill and warned of ill will if a virtual charter student bumps a traditional public school student from the team. Especially, he said, if that displaced student “attended every clinic and practice at his public school and then got cut for a child that is never even at the school.”

“For every winner, there’s a loser,” Battles said.

But Rep. Rhonda Rhoads, R-Corydon, who supports the bill, said schools could use the situation to their advantage. “As I see it, there could be one child, one student, that helps bring the team forward so much that they become a sell-out,” she said. “People come to the basketball game, to the football game, because the team is winning and there is a lot of revenue that comes in.”

The House bill initially failed to win the needed constitutional majority of 51 votes when it was passed 47-45 on its first vote in January. It won just enough support when it was brought back last week to move to the Senate.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden