For home-schoolers everywhere, the pandemic was the first real opportunity for their lifestyle choices “to be seen” and appreciated.

Non-home-schooling parents, forced by lockdowns to facilitate the day-to-day educational activities of their children, began to realize the scale of effort and sacrifice involved in teaching children at home. Those sacrifices are not made lightly by home-school families who value curricula and schedule flexibility, are dissatisfied with their local public and private school options, or find they can better address the needs of children with learning differences at home.

But some of the sacrifices are unnecessary and unfair, such as the state’s decadeslong refusal to allow home-schooled children to participate in school sports and other extracurricular activities through the public school system. That prohibition is as close to ending as it has ever been.

Last Thursday, the Texas House approved House Bill 547, better known as the Tim Tebow bill, after the college football legend who was the first Heisman Trophy winner to have been home-schooled as a child. It would allow home-schooled children access to UIL activities, from traditional sports to orchestra and chess. Individual school districts could opt out.

Still, it’s a start. And it only took a statewide lockdown to generate enough political will to make it happen.

Home-school advocacy groups are understandably elated. Similar bills in have in the past never made it out of legislative committees, so the odds of final passage are looking good.

The Texas Homeschool Coalition Association, which has been fighting for equal access for years, says the bill would expand options for home-schooling families. It argues that the kids deserve to round out their educational experiences, especially since their tax dollars already contribute to public schools without directly benefiting from them.

It’s tough to argue with that. (Especially in places like Fort Worth, where property taxes that support schools are high and always rising, even as the schools languish.)

And as the home school coalition correctly points out, 35 other states have similar laws. Indeed, it’s a peculiarity that a state like Texas — which provides tremendous latitude to home-schoolers in choosing curricula, structuring school days and even meeting testing standards — has been so reluctant to open extra-curricular activities.

This academic freedom, it turns out, is the primary thrust of opposition to the bill. Teacher and coach advocacy groups argue that “freedom” is a ruse for a lack of standards, from academic to attendance requirements, and that the bill would give home-schooled students an unfair advantage over their public school peers.

The bill “broadens the gap for circumventing UIL standards for eligibility” wrote the Texas High School Coaches Association. Its executive director Joe Martin, lamented that the bill would create a “separate class of athlete.”

It’s a hollow worry. The bill’s authors sought to address it by requiring home-schooled students who want to participate in league activities to “demonstrate grade-level academic proficiency” on a nationally recognized assessment instrument and provide regular written verification of academic achievement in other coursework.

There is even a provision that disqualifies home-schooled students who leave public school mid-year from continuing to participate in a league activity for the remainder of the year. That would prevent a failing athlete, for example, from switching to home-school so he or she could keep playing.

It seems silly to worry that upon the bill’s passage, an army of unschooled athletes would emerge from their homes and take over public school leagues. It’s far more likely that home-schooled students would participate in musical groups and academic clubs. But the “separate class” critique’s most serious offense is that it fundamentally misunderstands, or intentionally misrepresents, the reasons that most families choose to home-school.

Despite stereotypes of home-schoolers as weird or lazy or seeking to undermine the system, most parents choose home-school for the same reasons others choose public or private schools: They want to ensure their child flourishes academically and spiritually. For some children and some families, school at home will always be the best choice.

It shouldn’t prevent them from playing soccer or participating in the robotics club or crashing the cymbals in the orchestra with their public school peers. And it shouldn’t take another global crisis to get lawmakers to see that.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send emails to Distributed by Tribune Content Agency. © 2021 Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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