Utah Affirms Open Enrollment

By Staff

Coaching Management, 13.6, August 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1306/bbutah.htm

In Utah, as in many states, students’ right to choose their own high school is ensured by an open-enrollment law. And, as in many states, there has been grumbling in Utah about whether open enrollment tacitly allows certain schools to attract the best athletes and become perennial powerhouses.

But what is merely complaining in some states became action in Utah, as the state legislature last year considered a proposal that would have stripped a year of eligibility from any athlete who attends high school outside his or her local boundary. The bill was narrowly defeated in committee, but it sparked a lively debate about how open enrollment affects high school athletics. Its supporters claimed that the state’s top teams are stacked with out-of-boundary students who picked their school because of athletics, and that open enrollment has widened the chasm between the haves and have-nots.

To investigate the merit of that claim, the Utah legislature asked its Auditor General to audit several of the state’s leading football, baseball, and boys’ and girls’ basketball programs. As part of the audit, officials compared schools’ out-of-boundary percentages for the entire student body to the out-of-boundary percentages for selected teams.

The results, released this February, indicate that there is little or no evidence that athletics alone is attracting out-of-boundary students to the state’s most successful programs. Only two of the five boys’ basketball teams audited had an out-of-boundary percentage that was significantly higher than the school’s overall student body. In girls’ basketball, no team’s percentage was more than 14 percent above the student body, and two teams had lower out-of-boundary ratios than their school’s student population.

The Utah High School Activities Association, which lobbied aggressively against the bill, agreed with its intention—to restrict athletes from choosing a school based solely on sports—but didn’t believe the new law would provide a meaningful or fair solution. “When a student transfers from one high school to another, we can usually find out about their reasons and determine if the move was made for athletics,” says Jerry Bovee, Assistant Director of the UHSAA. “Maybe they’re not happy with playing time, or maybe the parents disagree with the coach. But it’s very difficult to determine a freshman student’s motivation for choosing a high school for the first time, so it would be hard to justify denying them the opportunity to participate.”

Bobby Porter, President of the Utah High School Basketball Coaches Association, says coaches in his state are split over the impact of open enrollment on athletics. “Some of our coaches say that students should be able to go where they want, and that it enhances competition because coaches are forced to make their program better every year,” he explains. “Others just want to see kids play in their own neighborhoods. They’re frustrated when they see a talented kid grow up in their area and then choose to attend another high school.”

Porter believes that open enrollment has driven successful coaches in Utah to do more to ensure that incoming students don’t overlook their schools. “If you’re running a good program and reaching out to people in your area, local athletes won’t feel the need to go across town,” he says. “It’s good for the high school coach to get involved in the community—to go to games at the junior high and elementary school, or hand out passes to schools so the younger kids can come to the high school games for free. Some coaches don’t want to do those things, and that’s why they’re losing out to open enrollment.”