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The solution that will end the private / public debate

04/17/2009, 7:59pm CDT
By Nicholas Kartos

Next season will be our 8th year online. In that time there has been a subject that we have not touched editorially but yet has been the most popular topic of our message board, especially the last couple of years.

That subject, of course, is the public-private school debate. In case you have been living in a hole the past 5-10 years, the issue revolves around pro-public schoolers saying that private schools have an unfair advantage in athletics due to their ability to recruit, especially if they reside in a big city. This debate is also commonly referred to as rural vs urban, which is more what my solution addresses.

The main reason why we haven't touched it is because it is a lose-lose situation. You pick a side and then you're hated on by the other side. Which, I have no problem with doing, but since there has never been a clear cut solution (in my mind). I am not going to stand behind something I didn't think would work just for the sake of standing behind something.

But ladies and gentlemen, I am happy to announce that I have come up with a solution.

Before we unveil my plan let's go over some of the hot buttons revolving around this topic. (These are not necessarily facts, rather the arguments that people present in regards to the issue)

1) Private schools that are in a big city have an advantage in sports because they have more people to choose from. Furthermore since private schools are privately funded they need to recruit students to keep their schools open, regardless of whether or not they do so for athletics.

2) Private schools do not have special needs students, students that generally do not play sports but are still counted in the enrollment numbers for public schools.

3) Some private schools offer tuition assistance based on need to students, with some of those students being athletes. There is also a school voucher system in place in Milwaukee of which some athletes may receive vouchers to attend private schools.  On the public school side the Chapter 220 program allows students in the Milwaukee school district to attend suburban schools.

4) Open enrollment allows students to switch from one public school to another, if their open enrollment is approved by the new school district.   For the 2008 state boys basketball championships 11 of 17 public schools for boys had at least one open enrollment or transfer student (with six of those 11 having more than 1).  On the girls basketball side 7 of 18 girls public schools had at least one open enrollment or transfer student.

5) Due to a new rule passed a few seasons ago, if a student changes schools after attending one school for four consecutive semesters they are not allowed to play varsity athletics for one year. This is commonly referred to as the "Korie Lucious rule" based on his transfer from King to Pius after his sophomore season. This new transfer rule has led to rampant recruiting of high school freshman.

6) Charter schools are starting to pop up in Milwaukee and are considered public schools, but generally have low enrollments.

Other solutions

The most commonly talked about solution is using a multiplier to increase enrollments at private schools. Another solution that has been used is having all private schools move up one division. There are currently 8 state associations that have some sort of private school enrollment formula in place.

The biggest problems with the multiplier or division jump solutions are that they do not treat private schools in smaller cities fairly. They also do not address the issue of public schools using the open enrollment program.

My Solution

1) Private school enrollment increase

---All private schools will receive an increase in enrollment of .1% of the population of the largest city in the county of which the private school resides in. So if the city is 54,000, 54 students are added to the enrollment.

---This increase can not exceed 200 students

---If this increase of students is greater than the total increase of a 1.5x multiplier, than the 1.5x multiplier is used

2) Open Enrollment / Transfer student increase for private AND public schools

---If a student on the team is open-enrolled at the school or did not attend the school district feeder school or parish system school in 8th grade there is an increase in enrollment. For the sake of this column we will refer to these student-athletes, simply as "transfers."

---A student that attends an in district private middle school and goes to the public high school and vice versa are not considered transfers (unless the switch schools after starting high school)

---Students who are attending a school due to a family move of more than 15 miles are not to be considered transfers.

---Increase is exponential depending on the sport. For basketball 50 students will be added if one transfer is on the team, 125 students if 2 transfers exist and 200 if three transfers exist and 300 if four or more transfers are on the team.

---Since division 1 schools can not increase a division at all, there will be a set number, where if you have that many transfers on your team you are not allowed to host playoffs games. For instance, in basketball that number would be 3 transfers.

---Schools will need to self-report such players one month before the season starts so that division and regional assignments can be determined by the WIAA.

---Any such player not reported is not eligible to play in the playoffs.

Benefits of this solution

As mentioned, the solution that I outlined is more of a "rural vs urban" solution than a public/private one. While it does assign extra enrollment to private schools it does so based on the population of their area. Without running all the numbers, there is no doubt that it would jump a few teams a division. However, the real indicator of division would be how many transfer kids are on the team. If a group of talented athletes grew up going to private school together why should they be punished for their athletic talents while a small town has a talented group of kids and it is applauded.

It is also a solution that recognizes the open enrollment issue, a major contention of private schools who disagree with the multiplier and division jumping solutions. While a team might have one transfer student from time-to-time, the 50 enrollment bump isn't, in most cases, going to change your division. However, if a team has 2,3,4 or more players who are what we defined as transfers, they should be bumped up because they are essentially an all-area team, whether it was intentional or not.

Why it might not take

Like any solution there are a few negatives. The big one here, and the reason I would guess it might not get legs, is that there is a bit more administrative work involved. Schools would have to calculate transfers and adjust their enrollments accordingly and get it reported. Then the WIAA would have to figure out the divisions and regional assignments.

My thoughts about that is that they currently turn around the playoff brackets in a couple of days, this is much easier. It's just throwing the new enrollments in a spreadsheet and then dividing up the teams regionally. With no seeding or host schools involved it makes it a lot easier.

The other issue would be the first time a student-athlete, who is considered a transfer according to my logic, does not make the varsity. It could be accused that they were not included on the team because they didn't want to increase their enrollment or lose home games in the playoffs. While this could happen, my thought is the cases of this happening would be few and far between. Also, if a team does have cuts they usually have pretty good processes in place and I doubt this would be considered as a factor.

But, back to the benefits

Wisconsin has always been a leader in the nationwide high school sports landscape. This innovative way of thinking would help carry on this tradition. I feel it is something that will help level the playing field and get it out in the open those schools that are putting out teams with a lot of student athletes from other areas.

I also want to emphasize that I am not trying to put down private schools, I am more trying to come up with a compromise between "There should be a multiplier" and "nothing should be done."

Tell your friends, tell your athletic directors, tell your administrators to read this article. Hopefully a solution like this can get us back to concentrating on what matters - the fine student-athletes that participate in high school sports and continuing to have high school sports teach those great life lessons and provide those lifelong memories. Not to mention, get rid of those 50 page threads on the message board.

Portions of this article appear in the May edition of WSN Illustrated

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