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Seven takeaways from new bill designed to force PIAA to hold separate state tournaments

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
Winning a PIAA championship trophy is the dream of every high school athlete in the state. The road to winning that trophy would be drastically changed if a proposed bill that would separate state playoffs for public and private schools is approved.
  • A proposed bill would alter the landscape of high school sports in Pennsylvania.
  • The PIAA would be forced to hold separate playoffs for public and private schools.
  • In addition, restrictions on transfers would be almost totally eliminated.

It’s an issue that has put a dark cloud over high school sports for years.

It's even prompted the restructuring of some leagues and alliances.

The fact that public schools had to compete against private schools for championships at the league, district or state levels has long rankled many.

The claim, coming loudly from certain public-school corners for decades, was that the private schools were recruiting top student-athletes.

The rancor statewide has grown in intensity, especially since the inclusion of the Philadelphia public schools in 2004 and the Philadelphia Catholic League four years later into the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Last year, the Pennsylvania Athletics Equity Committee was formed and held a summit featuring 150 administrators in State College. That meeting produced a push for separate tournaments to end the disproportionate number of private schools that have been winning state titles in sports such as basketball and football.

Tuesday morning, state Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Lawrence County, introduced a bill called the Parity in Interscholastic Athletics Act, that will force the PIAA to institute separate tournaments for public and private schools in eight team sports and then have a crossover game between the public school champ and the private school champ as a season finale.

Seven takeaways from the announcement:

Proposal would separate public, private playoffs in 8 sports, ease transfer restrictions

1. Transfers triumph: The biggest gripe of public schools is the transferring of student-athletes to private schools.

The proposed legislation would remove the restrictions on transfers with the exception of transfers during the season.

Based on the comments of Leonard Rich, the former Laurel School District superintendent in Lawrence County and co-state coordinator of the Pennsylvania Athletic Equity Steering Committee, public schools won’t care about kids jumping to private schools as long as there are separate state tournaments.

2. Charter schools not mentioned: The biggest issue in some corners of the state has been the rise of charter-school programs, which are funded by public schools.

In fact, more public school officials are concerned about losing kids to charter schools than they are losing them to private schools. It needs to be determined where the charter schools fall under the proposed format. Many who want separate tournaments prefer the separation to be on a boundary and nonboundary basis rather than private vs. public.

In addition, there would no longer be transfer hearings. It’s hard to imagine public schools being happy to lose kids to charter and private schools without any recourse to stop them.

3. Who’s the real champ? Rich said public schools will be proud to be public school state champs.

“We will be able to hang public school championship banners and that’s important to us,” he said.

If the public-school champs lose to the private school champs, however, it would take away bragging rights, at a minimum.

4. Failing did anything but fail: Some initially may have wondered why Eric Failing, executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, went along with the idea of separate tournaments after the organization was originally opposed.

That’s because with this proposal he could gain state tournament spots for his membership and also secure protection for schools in fear of being blackballed in scheduling and league membership.

New leagues are always being talked about. The new legislation would make it less easy and likely for private schools to be left out in the cold.

5. Do the kids really care? Not as much as you’d think.

Kids just want to compete, and often times it doesn’t matter who the opponent is. The concept of AAU, travel teams and club sports has diminished a student-athlete’s connection to any given high school.

If they have a better opportunity to play at another school, they want to go to that school and don’t care if their father, grandfather or great-grandfather played at the school they’re leaving.

Likewise, many of them don’t worry about how an opposing team in the state tournament was built or that they may face a team with players from two or three different states.

However, their parents and their school administrators do and are much more concerned about a level playing field.

6. Lots of work to be done. The proposal, which was panned by the PIAA, needs a lot of work before it is implemented.

The consensus among many fans is that the six-classification system has watered down the accomplishments of teams as it is, so it will be interesting to see how it would be restructured to accommodate private school brackets.

Will the six be changed to three private, three public? Will there be a disparity in the number of classes, since there are more public schools than private, like four public school brackets and two private, in which case there would be no crossover championship games in certain classes?

There’s lots to work out if the bill passes.

7. Let the kids play: That’s what Failing said at the news conference Tuesday morning.

“There have been more arguments about high school athletics than any of us can recall,” he said. “Let’s stop arguing about kids sports. These kids want to go out and have a good time, learn important life lessons. That’s what we should be focused on. Just let the kids play.”

If only it were that simple.