Pinelands Won’t Allow Home Schooler to Play Sports

By RICK MELLERUP | Jul 12, 2017

The Pinelands Regional School District has denied a home-schooled student residing in the district an opportunity to participate in the high school’s athletic programs.

A letter about the matter was briefly discussed at the June 14 meeting of the Pinelands Board of Education. A student, who had previously been enrolled at Pinelands Junior High School, will now be home schooled. His parents had asked the board for permission for the teen to play sports at the high school. Interim Superintendent Maryann Banks informed the board that would be impossible because the district would have to change its policy to accommodate the student.

However, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association now allows such students to participate in interscholastic athletics. Originally that had not been the case, but the NJSIAA changed its position in 2011. A district policy regarding the issue, found on the district’s website, seemed based on the NJSIAA’s older rules:

“To be eligible for participation in the interscholastic athletic program of a New Jersey State Interscholastic Association member school, all high school students must meet, at a minimum, all the eligibility requirements of the Constitution, Bylaws, and Rules and Regulations of the NJSIAA. Home-schooled children are not eligible to participate in the high school interscholastic athletic program of this district.”

Banks said the board is aware of the NJSIAA’s change of mind.

“We are aware that the NJSIAA changed its policy to allow school districts the option to include home-schooled students based upon certain criteria,” she wrote in answer to the inquiry. “In this case the Board of Education decided not to change its policy and allow such participation. Presently the Board’s policy regarding home-schooled students (9270) says specifically, ‘When children are educated at home and are not enrolled in a school, the school district is not required to provide any of the entitlements or privileges of pupils enrolled in the school district unless specifically provided in the federal special education laws.’’’

At this Monday evening’s working session, board President Susan Ernst reiterated the policy, saying it had been revised in 2016.

To be clear, school districts in New Jersey are not required to provide athletic opportunities – or any other extracurricular options – to home-schooled students, despite the NJSIAA’s position. But districts can do so if they choose.

So the question is why Pinelands won’t?

During a discussion on the issue at Monday evening’s meeting Ernst was repeatedly asked if allowing a home-schooled student would cause any financial impact to the district. The questions were never directly answered, but it would seem it wouldn’t.

It was then brought up that the board had effusively praised the taxpayers of the district after they passed three referendum questions totaling $53.6 million last January. One of the questions had asked voters to approve the spending of $1,943,750 to upgrade the district’s athletic facilities. The state of New Jersey will chip in 19 percent of the total, leaving local taxpayers responsible for $1,568,750. It was also brought up that the board had stressed in pre-referendum forums that the athletic facilities, especially the football field, are used not only by Pinelands students but by members of the community as well.

The parents of the student in question are taxpayers and members of the community. But that argument didn’t sway the board into reconsidering the policy. Indeed, Ernst said the policy would not change.

The issue doesn’t affect many children considering that Banks said there are only three home-schooled students residing in the district, with “home schooled” meaning their parents have voluntarily withdrawn them from the district, not to be confused with students being taught at home by district teachers because they are unable to attend school due to physical or other reasons. Nor is Pinelands unique in not allowing home-schooled students to participate in athletics. Many districts in New Jersey have similar policies. The Lenape Regional High School District, for example, refused to allow a 14-year-old home schooler to play football last fall, causing some controversy.

According to The Marlton Sun, about 20 fellow football players and supporters showed up at a Lenape board meeting last October to protest that district’s decision.

“My tax bill says I pay $2,092 in school taxes,” the newspaper quoted Marni Cunard, the student’s mother, as saying. “Since our money funds your schools, my son and other home schoolers really should have access to athletics and activities because they are students too.”

But Lenape Superintendent Carol Birnbohm defended the policy, according to the Sun.

“This policy is not intended to be, nor is it discriminatory in any fashion; it fact it ‘levels the playing field’ by ensuring that all participants in curricular, extracurricular and athletics programs meet the same rigorous requirements for participation in our programs.”

Similar concerns about home schoolers meeting requirements were expressed by Pinelands board members on Monday.

According to the Home School Legal Defense Association, over 20 states have passed legislation requiring school boards to allow home-schooled students to participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities, although many have strict sets of regulations to determine eligibility.

Bills requiring public schools in New Jersey to allow home schoolers who meet eligibility standards to participate in interscholastic athletics were introduced in February 2016 in both the New Jersey Assembly and Senate. Both have languished in the Education Committees of each body.

Those bills would also require school districts to allow students who live within the district but attend charter or county vocational schools to participate in athletics. Pinelands does allow students who attend MATES, Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science, located in Stafford Township, to play sports.

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