School choice is a hot topic in 2017. First, incoming President Donald Trump named controversial mega-donor Betsy DeVos as his Secretary of Education. The ultra-conservative Michigan billionaire is best known for her ardent support of school choice, which allows parents to receive public dollars to help send their children to schools of their choice, be they charter, private, or religious. Trump, DeVos, and several Republican governors want to implement school choice programs, consisting of vouchers, across the land.
Voucher programs give parents taxpayer dollars to be used to cover tuition at private schools, even religious ones, immediately raising questions about the separation of church and state. Other questions abound regarding academic rigor and accountability at private schools, which do not administer the same standardized tests as public schools. Finally, a constant fear is that school vouchers will lead to the de-funding of public schools, either through public school funds being diverted to pay for vouchers or through the loss of per-student funding as public schools lose kids to private competitors.
While school voucher bills have failed in most state legislatures where Republicans proposed them, including Texas, a new crop of legislation may be seen as a stepping stone to getting to those vouchers. In Texas, Senate Bill 640, known colloquially as a “Tim Tebow Bill,” would allow home-schooled students to play sports at public schools by expanding UIL (University Interscholastic League) eligibility to those students.
SB 640 would require home-school parents to pay a fee, but the language of the bill does not stipulate the size or grades of such a fee.
On social media, people are vocalizing both support and derision for the proposal. Proponents of the bill argue that it is good for public school sports teams by opening up wider talent pools, and also good for home-schoolers by giving students opportunities they cannot get at home. Few would argue with the second point, but critics worry that home-schooled students are less accountable under UIL no-pass, no-play rules.
If parents are teachers, are they likely to automatically sign that their students are passing all classes in order to maintain athletic eligibility? Some worry that sport-obsessed parents could take advantage of the Tim Tebow Bill to devote all their teenagers’ time to sports in hopes of parlaying public school team exposure into college scholarships- or even pro contracts. A student-athlete could be pulled out of school to train 24/7, while allegedly being “home-schooled,” and still play on his or her original public school team.
Although the above scenario may sound outlandish, the Internet is full of stories of parents’ seemingly-growing obsessions with winning athletic scholarships.
The main area of contention, however, centers on money. Will the fees paid by home-school parents cover school districts’ costs of hosting home-school players, or will there be a net loss to public schools? Will schools be allowed to waive these fees in order to attract star players among home-schoolers, and what ethical implications would that bring up? Could booster clubs pay the fees out of their own pocket to add home-school talent to their teams’ rosters? Trouble is brewing, especially in big cities. Smaller cities may not have enough athletic home-schoolers to make the issue pertinent, but metropolises like Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio almost certainly have many home-schooled teenagers who could be game-changers for public high schools that can get them on the team.
And, what of a slippery slope between home-schoolers and private school students? If SB 640 passes and no major scandals immediately crop up, would Republicans in Austin try to amend the bill to include private school students? Many private schools do not offer certain sports, which gives SB 640 proponents the ability to argue that private school students should be allowed to pursue those particular sports at public schools. Eventually, the bill might be expanded further to allow private school students to opt out of their own school’s sports team to join a larger, more competitive team at a public school.
In Texas, where sports are king, this is no trivial matter!
However, both sides can win, which is a rarity in politics. If the Texas legislature would amend SB 640 to count each home-school (or, perhaps later, private school as well) participant in public school sports as a half-time public school student for funding purposes, most opposition to the bill would evaporate. The public schools would get their funding. Most opposition to school vouchers and Tim Tebow Bills comes from a fear of losing a critical mass of public school funding, not a dislike of school choice. Republicans in Austin could get school choice, and Tim Tebow Bills passed into law if they were willing to guarantee that the public schools would not lose money.
But, so far, the GOP has been unwilling to put its money where its mouth is. The second they are willing to do right by public schools, the public will welcome school choice with open arms.