High school sports in Tennessee reached a milestone in 2012, marking 15 years of separate postseason tournaments for public and non-public schools.
High school sports in Tennessee reached a milestone in 2012, marking 15 years of separate postseason tournaments for public and non-public schools. Back in 1997, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association's Legislative Council created a Division II for all private institutions that provide financial aid to varsity student-athletes. Today, 50 schools compete in that division, while 20 other non-public schools - ones that do not offer sports-related financial aid - are still allowed to participate in the traditional Division I. But in order to level the playing field, their enrollments are multiplied by 1.8 for classification purposes (the highest multiplier in the country), typically moving them up one or even two classes within that division.
The two-pronged effort was an attempt to quell the domination of private schools at state tournaments - particularly in football, boys' tennis, boys' golf and wrestling. Originally proposed by a public school in Tennessee, the system has made for regular-season schedules that involve 800-mile round trips on weeknights for some student-athletes in Division II, and Bernard Childress, executive director of the TSSAA, still isn't convinced it completely works. "It hasn't stopped the public-private debate," he admits. "A lot of people across the nation think - and we kind of laugh when they say it - 'Well, Tennessee has it figured out.' No, we do not. Schools are happier, but this is not the cure-all. There will always be some schools that will feel like there should be a total split. But did it help the situation we were in at that time? Yes, it did."
It's one of the oldest debates in all of high school sports: Private and other non-public schools, despite usually being classified by state athletic associations in the same manner as public schools, can legally attract top athletes from surrounding communities - a wrinkle in the system that public school coaches and administrators contend gives non-public schools a built-in advantage on a playing field that is supposed to be level. Private schools counter that open enrollment at certain public schools acts as an equalizer. "But it really doesn't," claims an administrator at one state high school athletics and activities association. "First of all, a lot of public schools don't have open enrollment. Plus there are a lot of public schools that have open enrollment that lose more kids than they gain."
Officials from other state associations agree that the open-enrollment argument lacks much punch. But the overall public-versus-private controversy remains high on their priority list. Here's why: Over the past decade and a half, non-public schools have won an increasing percentage of state championships.
Fifteen years ago, Athletic Business attempted to quantify just how much of an advantage parochial and private schools held over public schools. A survey of 43 of the 45 state athletics and activities associations whose public and non-public members competed head-to-head in state tournaments during the 1996-97 academic year found that while non-public schools made up 13.1 percent of the schools, they won 18.4 percent of the championships in all sports. A state-by-state breakdown revealed that non-public schools underperformed their numbers in only 13 of the 43 states.
Based on new AB research conducted this fall using data for the 2011-12 academic year provided by websites for state associations and various newspapers around the country, the championship chasm between public and non-public schools has widened significantly in some states. Take Alabama, where non-public schools make up 12 percent of all schools eligible for tournament action but nabbed more than 36 percent of all titles; a decade and a half ago, they won less than 26 percent.
More startling are numbers for California, which awards state championships in only seven sports: boys' and girls' basketball, boys' and girls' cross country, football, boys' and girls' golf, boys' and girls' track and field, volleyball and wrestling. While only 26 percent of schools that participate in those sports are non-public, those schools won almost 53 percent of all titles - dominating all five classes of both boys' and girls' basketball in 2012, as well as sweeping boys' and girls' track and field. Even states like Minnesota and South Dakota, which previously saw zero or negative differential between the number of eligible non-public schools and the number of championship-winning non-public schools, now are experiencing double-digit increases in that differential.
The public-versus-private argument has been most heated in high-profile sports like basketball and football. But AB's latest research suggests that domination by non-public schools persists more commonly in baseball, girls' cross country, boys' golf, boys' ice hockey, boys' and girls' soccer, and girls' tennis. In Delaware and Hawaii, private and other non-public schools often win the majority of all championships - not surprising, considering they make up nearly half of the schools eligible for tournament play in those states. But in other sparsely populated states, such as Wyoming, private schools rarely dominate. "We have 72 member high schools, and only one of them is a private school," says Trevor Wilson, associate commissioner of the Wyoming High School Activities Association. "We don't deal with any issues between public and private schools. We are very fortunate."
There have been plenty of attempts by other states over the past 15 years to deal with those issues, including several within the past 24 months. From devising competitive-equity formulas to designating separate tournaments for non-public schools under the state association's umbrella, administrators are coming at the so-called unfair competition dispute from a variety of angles.
"I think each state association really has to do some soul-searching," says B. Elliot Hopkins, director of sports and educational services for the Indianapolis-based National Federation of State High School Associations, who also sits on the organization's Citizenship/Equity Committee. "What administrators do in one state may have no place in another state. There's no right or wrong; it's just what works best in that state at a particular time. You have to add that clarifier: 'at a particular time.' "
At this particular time, according to Hopkins, the most common method states use in their attempts to level the playing field is the implementation of some type of enrollment multiplier that usually places private and other non-public schools in a higher division or classification than their similarly sized public school peers. But the multiplier might soon be replaced - or at least augmented - by the success factor. Also referred to as a success ratio, Hopkins calls it the latest "buzz term" in high school athletics.
The success factor can be applied to all schools, not just non-public ones, and it can help determine whether schools should move up or down the athletic classification scale. In June, the Indiana High School Athletic Association's Executive Committee voted in favor of what commissioner Bobby Cox heralded as a "progressive" decision to create a two-year tournament success factor in all team sports (baseball, basketball, football, soccer, softball and volleyball), beginning with the 2013-14 academic year. Under the new system - and on a sport-by-sport basis - schools will earn one point for a sectional championship, two points for a regional championship, three points for state runner-up status and four points for a state championship. The maximum number of points a school's team can earn in a single year is four. Should a school earn six points or more during a two-year period in any given sport (two state championship game appearances, for example), that school would compete in the next higher enrollment class for the ensuing two seasons. Tournament success achieved during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 academic years will be used to determine classifications during the first year the tournament success factor is in place.
"For years, coaches have been complaining about trying to level the playing field, and I think this is a nice step in that direction," Matt Merica, athletics director at North Montgomery High School told the Journal Review of Crawfordsville. "There have been all kinds of proposals out there, like the multiplier, but this one got enough support and got passed. I think it has good merits to it."
Many administrators in Pennsylvania, meanwhile, thought a popular reclassification proposal known as the "Bohannon Plan" - named after the former Elco High School athletics director who pitched it - had merit, too. About 20 percent of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association's member schools are private or public charters that are winning an increasingly disproportionate number of state titles. The Bohannon Plan would have reclassified all PIAA schools, bumping several parochial and charter schools into higher classifications while dropping a similar number of public schools to lower classifications. They would have been classified separately and then lumped back together to compete for the same district and state titles.
"That plan went through two readings [of the Board of Control], but by the time it got to the third reading, that's when the board decided to back off because of legislation that was being introduced into the Senate to make sure we didn't discriminate against private schools," PIAA executive director Brad Cashman told the Reading Eagle in May prior to his retirement last summer. "So the whole plan basically died because of that legislation. Once the board decided not to adopt [the plan], then legislation was pulled from the table."
Around the same time that the Bohannon Plan was dropped in 2011, the Ohio High School Athletic Association was convinced it had found a way to appease a persistent group of public school superintendents in Wayne County who wanted separate tournaments for public and non-public schools. Those administrators presented evidence showing that non-public schools won 43 percent of the state championships in Ohio during the previous 10 years, even though they comprise only about 16 percent of the OHSAA's membership.
The association denounced the idea of splitting up the schools and instead put forth a detailed competitive balance proposal that involved a formula for every school that would combine its enrollment number with a variety of boundary, socioeconomic and athletic tradition factors to arrive at an "athletic count." That final number would determine each school's divisional assignment for tournament purposes. Twice the proposal failed to generate enough support based on votes by member schools - once in May 2011 and again the following year after being tweaked.
"The proposal was very complicated," concedes OHSAA director of information Tim Stried. "That was one of the knocks on it. I think that's probably one of the reasons why it didn't pass. For us, it was not complicated, but we worked with it every day. I'm sure a lot of schools looked at it and were confused."
Now those same Wayne County superintendents have resumed their efforts to establish separate tournaments, and OHSAA members will vote on the proposal in early May. "We've been public about our hope that this does not pass," Stried says. "Let me paint the worst-case scenario for you: If it passes and the non-public schools are kicked out of the normal tournament structure and are just playing other private schools, private schools could certainly withdraw from the association and form their own association. We are worried that would happen, because there have already been many private schools that said they would support a new association. If the private schools form their own association, they will have their own bylaws, their own regulations, their own everything. So then we're competing for officials, we're competing for tournament sites, we're competing for all kinds of things."
Perhaps the deepest repercussion would be if that potential association of non-public schools establishes bylaws that allow for recruiting. "We could do nothing about it, because they would have their own association," Stried says. "So, essentially, public school kids could be aggressively recruited by private schools."
The OHSAA is not the only state association to be hit with secession threats in recent years. Almost three dozen smaller public schools in Georgia, primarily from the central and southern parts of the state, were primed to break off from the Georgia High School Association and form the Georgia Public Schools Association before GHSA officials acquiesced earlier this year and created separate playoffs in most sports for public and private schools in Class A - that state's smallest classification. Championships for football, basketball, baseball and softball have been split into public and private divisions, beginning this fall, and teams qualify for the state playoffs based on a power-ranking scale that has drawn criticism from coaches for not being updated frequently or even accurately. "It was very complicated," GHSA executive director Ralph Swearngin told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in October after complaints from coaches surfaced, adding that the association might make adjustments to the playoff system after the conclusion of the fall sports seasons.
An attempt to remove the North Carolina High School Athletic Association's three parochial member schools - and thus eliminate their dominance in state tournament play - failed last spring. The proposal needed approval from 293 of the state's 396 schools (75 percent), but it only garnered 234 votes; more than one-quarter of all schools (110) did not even bother to vote.
According to news reports, Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh has won 34 state titles since 2005, while Charlotte Catholic won three football championships, 10 boys' and girls' soccer titles and 11 girls' swimming championships. Kernersville's Bishop McGuinness High School, meanwhile, has won seven straight girls' basketball titles. "I understand why they were in the public school classification 15 to 20 years ago," Newton-Conover High School boys' tennis coach Brian Tate told the Hickory Daily Record in May. "I guess there weren't that many private schools then. But there are plenty of private schools [in the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association] for them to be playing against now."
"You could write a series of articles on every aspect of this topic," Hopkins says. "There are so many moving parts. That's why we've been having this discussion for years."
Does that mean that a solution will continue to elude states? "We can still get closer to one," Hopkins predicts. "I don't think the success ratio is the last piece of this, because it's not one size fits all. I think it'll be a combination of different things, and the multiplier and the success ratio are part of the process. But the ultimate answer is really left to each individual state and its schools."
Administrators in Illinois, where non-public schools make up 16 percent of the Illinois High School Association's membership but last year took home 30 percent of the championships, added a waiver in 2011 to its 1.65 multiplier (which has been in place for private and charter schools since 2005). Granted to schools on a sport-by-sport basis if a particular team has not met specific success requirements during the previous six seasons, the waiver eliminates the multiplier to determine postseason competition classification.
"For the most part, since going to the multiplier and the individual sport waiver, the public-private issue hasn't been as big a topic of debate among Illinois administrators as it once was," IHSA executive director Marty Hickman told CSNChicago.com in February. "There still is a lot of animosity between public and private schools. We have done some things and helped to level the playing field. But there is no magic silver bullet. What we have done is better than the alternative, which is doing nothing."
Tennessee's Childress agrees. "When you're an association, you've got to take care of the minority," he says, adding that the TSSAA was against creating a separate Division II for non-public schools. "All schools should be competing against one another. Separating them takes away from that and is not what high school sports is all about. But some schools in Division II really like that alignment now. They've made the best of it, and we're trying to make the best of it, too."