Public-Private Divide Deepens

By Staff

Athletic Management, 16.3, April/May 2004,

Much like lava occasionally blows to the surface in a fiery eruption, the sometimes contentious relationship between public and private high schools has heated up. Since the beginning of the year, two states have entertained proposals to address perceived athletic advantages enjoyed by private schools. Although neither proposition was approved, the results indicate that underlying issues continue to bubble.

In Louisiana, a proposal to put public and non-public schools into separate classifications with distinct district and state championship tournaments was pre-empted by the creation of a committee assigned to study the problem. In Kentucky, a proposal to ban schools that provide financial aid from state tournaments received 127 of the 238 (53 percent) votes cast, but that was short of the two-thirds majority required for passage.

This was the second time in six years that the Louisiana High School Athletic Association has considered separating public and private schools. A 1998 proposal was voted down 254-71, but a scheduled vote at this yearís LHSAA convention in January looked like it might be closer. A survey by the Shreveport Times held before the convention found that 37 percent of 71 randomly selected principals planned to vote for the proposal and that 20 percent were undecided.

Instead, LHSAA members voted 256-71 to delay action until a special committee can make other recommendations. According to LHSAA Commissioner Tommy Henry, the committee (largely made up of principals) is charged with suggesting new rules that can better balance competition.

Proponents of the split feel that private schools enjoy advantages over public schools in part because they do not have specific attendance zones assigned by the state. There has also been talk of illegal recruiting by private schools as well as improper financial inducements being provided to athletes to attend certain schools.

Henry, however, believes that any instances of improper activities are limited in scope and not unique to private schools, which comprise about 20 percent of Louisiana high schools. "We have just a few schools that have created some really ill will over the way theyíve done some things, and itís mainly in football," he says.

The committee will examine various ways to address concerns of both public and private schools, from suggesting new rules to considering changing the structure of post-season play. It is expected to make its recommendations to the LHSAA Executive Committee this spring. The Executive Committee could adopt some of the recommendations with the full membership able to vote on proposals as early as September.

Henry has floated the idea of having schools apply for LHSAA membership on a regular basis. If a school could not get approval from at least half the members in its peer group, which would be either all public schools or all private schools, it would not be allowed to compete in LHSAA tournaments. Currently, schools simply need to be certified by the state and agree to follow LHSAA rules to be members.

Regardless of the eventual solution, Henry is optimistic that the special committee will find compromises that will work better than splitting public and private schools. "If the proposal to split had passed, it would have been like a storm hitting this association," he says. "If the proposal had been voted down, a dark cloud would still be hanging over it. Now, by deferring action on the proposal and working on the issues involved, we have an opportunity to get some blue skies up there with the clouds. I do believe, since we live together and work together in this state, we ought to be able to play together and get along with each other."

While Louisiana has long wrestled with the public-private question, this was the first time that the Kentucky High School Athletic Association voted on a proposal that would differentiate schools that provide financial aid from those that donít, according to KHSAA Commissioner Brigid DeVries. As in Louisiana, attendance zones are a major source of contention, but some administrators in Kentucky are also concerned with the ability of private schools to award financial aid.

"Not having any boundaries to get students from and then paying their tuition is like a college or prep school," Frank Watson, Athletic Director at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, a public school in Lexington, said in the Lexington Herald-Leader. "It creates an unequal situation with public schools."

Although the proposal to bar KHSAA athletes who receive financial aid came up short of approval, DeVries expects the public-private issue to remain a topic of conversation. "If people have problems in this area, then we need to address them and come up with some solutions," she says. "Iíve already met with some superintendents to continue the dialog, and we will be proactive in this area."

Discussions of public-private conflicts are old hat for Ronnie Carter, Executive Director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, which split into two divisions (one for schools that provide financial aid and one for schools that donít) seven years ago. But the move to two divisions has failed to end the debates.

"As long as we keep score and have champions, this will always be an issue," he says. "I donít think you could take what weíve done here and say that itís solved the problem. It hasnít.

"The saddest part to me is how people put all the public schools in one group and all the private schools in another and by the nature of those two words assume that all the people in those two groups are the same," Carter continues. "Theyíre not."

In February, the TSSAA decided to multiply enrollments of private schools that do not give financial aid by 1.8 for classification purposes. But Carter says further adjustments to the system are expected, especially as the model for public education embraces new concepts of enrollment.

"We are seeing more urban school systems with open enrollment, and even if they donít have open enrollment, the students have options to go to different schools in the town," he says. "So obviously things will be different in Memphis than in a county that only has one high school."

According to Carter, schools from five metropolitan counties account for 70 percent of the state titles over the past 30 to 40 years while comprising only 25 percent of the associationís membership. "This suggests that itís not a public-private issue, itís more of an urban-rural issue," he says. "We looked at adding multipliers for public schools in metropolitan areas as well as the private schools this year. And although we did not add the multiplier for public schools, there was a long discussion about it. I think you may see more states begin to look at that."