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Tim Tebow Bill gets touchdown in West Virginia Senate

CHARLESTON — A bill to allow home school, private school and parochial school students the opportunity to play sports at public schools made it through the West Virginia Senate, Tuesday, for the second time in five years.

Senate Bill 131 passed the Senate in a 25-9 vote with one member absent and six Democratic senators crossing party lines to vote yes and two Republicans voting no. The bill now heads to the House of Delegates, which has pushed back against similar legislation.

Also known as the Tim Tebow Act, SB 131 would give home schoolers and private or religious school students the chance to participate in extracurricular activities regulated by the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission as long as the activity isn’t already offered at the private and parochial school.

The bill is named for former professional baseball player and football quarterback Tim Tebow, who became the first home school student nominated for a Heisman Trophy.

Tebow played for a high school football team as quarterback while being home schooled. He went on to play for the University of Florida and played with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Denver Broncos.

Students would have to register with the school where the activities they want to participate in are provided, pay any fees and be subject to the same disciplinary procedures and academic standards. If a student leaves that school’s athletic programs, they would be subject to the same transfer rules that govern public school students.

“One of my core beliefs, one that drives me, is I want to do everything to ensure that we’re meeting the needs of all the kids of West Virginia,” said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson. “This legislation would allow students that attend private school or home school that meet certain criteria to participate in public school sports or band. We need to tune out all the political noise surrounding this issue and focus on the children.”

The bill has had a hard time making it into the end zone.

A similar bill passed the Senate in 2016 on a 25-8 vote with seven Democratic senators voting with the Republican majority. That bill was sent to the House Education Committee where it never again saw the light of day.

Since then, the bill has been re-introduced every year. It never made it out of the Senate Education Committee in 2017. The next year, it passed the Senate Education Committee, but never made it out of the Senate Finance Committee. In 2019, it was introduced in both the Senate and the House, but was overshadowed by the first of the two education omnibus bills and was never taken up.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, was a supporter of the 2016 Tim Tebow Bill. He said it’s unfair for parents of home school students who pay taxes that fund the public school system and for the student not to be able to play sports at that same school.

“I wonder why we would exclude these students from participation,” Woelfel said. “Why would we exclude a certain segment of our youth from these experiences that will likely enhance their quality of life? I haven’t heard a good reason yet.”

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, supported the bill in 2016, but voted against the bill Tuesday. Romano said he was fine with allowing home school students to participate in public school extracurricular activities, but raised concerns with opening up participation to private or religious schools.

“Think of what we’re doing with the private and parochial schools that are not part of the WVSSAC,” Romano said. “When you go to a private or parochial school, you might not even be from the same county or the same part of the state. You might not even be from this state, but we’re going to give them unfettered access to our public schools sports activities. I think that is a mistake.”

Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, said he had previously been against other versions of the Tim Tebow Bill, but changed his mind based on the changes made to the current bill. Weld was a freshman at Madonna High School in Weirton in the mid-1990s, and was on a summer swim team, but transferred to Brooke High School. Weld said other students might not be able to do that.

“It might not work out for every student.,” Weld said. “They might not find friends and a new group when they transfer to a much larger public school. That student might want to stay at the much smaller Catholic school that they had started in and where their friends were, but just wanted the opportunity to participate on an athletic team that they didn’t have a chance to at that school.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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