Rob Bell 2017

Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, speaks about his so-called Tebow bill on the House floor in 2017.

The so-called Tebow bill has been a recurring piece of proposed Virginia legislation for nearly 20 years. Nicknamed after Heisman-winning football player and former home-schooled student Tim Tebow, the bill seeks to allow home-schooled students to participate in public school sports and other interscholastic competitions.

Proposed by Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, each session since 2010, the bill and other home schooling issues remain a focal point of Bell’s.

His mother, Mary Bell, had been an early supporter of home schooling in the commonwealth, back when it was far less common. Though Bell himself was not home-schooled, both of his siblings were, and his mother spoke to the General Assembly on several occasions.

“She came and testified in Richmond when I was in college,” Bell said. “Back then, there were only a few thousand home-schooled students in the state. Now there are more than 30,000.”

Though the Tebow bill passed the last three years, it was vetoed every time by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

“Participation in athletic and academic competitions is a privilege for students who satisfy eligibility requirements,” McAuliffe said in a statement announcing his 2017 veto. “Opening participation in those competitions to individuals who are not required to satisfy the same criteria codifies academic inequality in interscholastic competition.”

Not everyone sees it this way. Karen Skelton, president of the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers, said she dislikes the “Tebow” nickname because it dates the bill and makes it sound like it’s all about football. Instead, Skelton calls it the “sports access bill,” which she said reflects the intent more accurately.

“The name of the bill is ‘interscholastic’ activities, so it’s anything that’s competitive — drama, debate, theater programs,” she said. “Most of the people who are asking for this aren’t football players; they’re gymnasts, swimmers, wrestlers — good luck finding some other programs that offer wrestling.”

Though opponents of the bill often will cite recreation sports leagues as an alternative, not all home-schooled students have this option, Skelton said.

Bell also has sponsored two bills this session aimed at giving home-schooled students access to public school academic programs.

One of those bills, HB 497, would allow home-schooled students access to dual-enrollment classes.

Currently, home-schooled students have access to these classes but usually must attend them at the partner college, and at their own expense. Bell said this provides a different, “lopsided” experience than public school students in dual-enrollment courses have.

“The classes usually are physically at the high school, and while home-school students can take those classes at the colleges, that’s not going to be quite the same class,” Bell said.

The other education access bill proposed by Bell, HB 521, would allow home-schooled students access to Virtual Virginia, an online program that has offered courses through the Virginia Department of Education since 2002.

Bell sees Virtual Virginia as a useful tool both for home-schooled students trying to take courses not offered elsewhere and for public school students who want to leave school for a couple years.

“Socially, things can be very rough for some students, particularly around middle-school age,” Bell said. “This bill would allow them to leave public education for a couple years without missing out on education opportunities.”

Similar to dual-enrollment courses, Virtual Virginia is open to home-schooled students, but requires them to pay a fee that public school students participating in the Early College Scholars program don’t have to. Non-public school students pay $499 per three-credit course.

In the 2016-17 school year, 14 home-schooled students took a total of 25 courses through Virtual Virginia.

Even though public schooling is funded primarily through real estate taxes — which both public school and home-school parents pay — non-public school students have to pay a fee to use Virtual Virginia because they are not accounted for in funding.

Virginia Education Association spokesman John O’Neil said the problem comes down to inadequate funding.

“We’re concerned that these bills would diminish the schools, in part because there are potential budget implications here,” he said. “When you start opening programs for home-schoolers, no state money comes with that. State money is only allocated for students who enroll in the public schools.”

Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said they are still analyzing Bell’s bills and are unsure how the passage of HB 521 would affect Virtual Virginia funding.

Pyle did clear up a misconception about Virtual Virginia — that home-schooled students registering for classes via the program would be considered public school students and thus eligible to compete in interscholastic programs.

“Non-public school students using Virtual Virginia are not considered public school students unless they register for the full-time program through their local high school,” he said. “Generally, interscholastic program decisions are left up to the school districts.”

Even if Bell’s Tebow bill passes again this session, it’s unlikely to be signed into law. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, while serving as a state senator in 2012, voted against a similar bill, helping to kill it.

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Tyler Hammel is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7268, or @TylerHammelVA on Twitter.

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