Alabama’s Legislators Show How Politics Has Blown Up High School Sports Model – Forbes

There are two separate bills making their way through the Alabama legislature that explain why there is so much tension in how high school sports are organized, and how legislators are trying to help solve, and continue to create, these problems.

In mid-March, the Alabama House Education Policy held a hearing on House Bill 9,  which says, in total:

Relating to the Alabama High School Athletic Association; requiring the Alabama High School Athletic Association to adopt a rule to allow its public school members to compete only against each other for state championships, and its nonpublic school members to compete only against each other for state championships.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA: Section 1. The Alabama High School Athletic Association shall adopt a rule to allow its public school members to compete only against each other for post regular season playoff games and state championships, and its nonpublic school members to compete only against each other for post regular season playoff games and state championships which shall be effective in the 2019-2020 school year and in subsequent years. Section 2. This act shall become effective on the first day of the third month following its passage and approval by the Governor, or its otherwise becoming law.

The language that would separate public and private schools in Alabama postseason high school sports is quite uncomplicated, unlike, say, legislating health care. Rep. Ritchie Wharton, the Republican who is sponsoring the bill, said on his Facebook page the idea for this came from his constituents, without an angry town hall meeting involved, presumably:

I realize that our state is facing serious problems, but today…I had the opportunity to address an issue that became a talking point when I ran for office. In doing so, I hope that I have kept my promise to those that have shared their concerns with me for the past few years.

The concern, as it has been in other states, is this: private schools every year are winning a bigger share of titles. Often, it’s only a specific few private schools that dominate, as some schools fight an overall 50-year decline in private enrollment by using sports as a means of promoting their name and their brand. That’s not just me or Wharton’s constituents in Owens Cross Roads, Ala., saying that. There’s science! Specifically, research published in 2015 in the Journal of Amateur Sport that showed private schools growing more dominant:

For example, in Alabama in 2011-12, private schools won more than 36% of all state titles. Fifteen years earlier, in 1996-97, private schools won only 25.5% of state titles. The continually growing trend of private school success is also evident in states like California where 26% of schools are private, but win nearly 53% of all state titles, including all five classes of boys and girls basketball in 2012. Furthermore, states that did not indicate a disproportionate amount of private school championships in 1997 (e.g., Minnesota and South Dakota) currently show double-digit increases between percentage of private schools and percentage of championships won.

The high school association in Alabama, like many states, already has a multiplier that counts each private school student as more than one student for the purpose of placing schools in enrollment-based classes, a strategy meant to blunt the advantage private schools have in being able to attract students without worrying about district borders. But that may not be enough because, “recruiting is at its worst as it’s ever been in the history of Alabama, and anybody who denies that is living in a dream world,” committee member Rep. Jim Patterson, like Wharton a Republican, said, as reported by AL.com. Other state associations are moving toward separating public and private schools in the postseason.

Wharton actually introduced this bill in 2016 as well, and like then this bill is likely to go nowhere. This year, that’s because the Alabama association is looking at ways beyond the multiplier of narrowing the public-private divide. (The Alabama association is privately run, but it does include a member of the State Board of Education on it executive board.)

This struggle isn’t going away, and it’s in part thanks to Wharton’s colleagues in the Alabama legislature. Like many state governments, and as the Trump administration would like to do, Alabama is looking at expanding the ability of parents to place their children in the schools of their choice. The Alabama House is now considering a bill approved by the state’s Senate that would give even higher tax breaks to corporations that sponsor private-school or “non-failing” public-school scholarships for students whose family income is no greater than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. It’s under a program the legislature approved in 2013 (a year before Wharton’s was elected) called the Alabama Accountability Act.

Senate President Pro Team Del Marsh, a Republican who is sponsoring the changes to the accountability act, wrote a column for the Alabama Political Reporter to explain why he “fights for school choice”:

I do not support school choice to make teachers look bad, nor do I support school choice to so that anyone may profit from it. I support school choice for the parent who wants their child to have a better life that starts with quality education and for the student who is looking for a hand up to get where they want to go in life. Even if only one child is able to achieve their potential and realize their dreams because they were able to improve their situation, it will be well worth the vicious political attacks launched by the defenders of the status quo.

I want every Alabamian to have a quality education. I agree with President Trump that for some, it is in public schools, for others, it is in private schools and home schooling. But only the parent knows best, and I trust them over Montgomery bureaucrats and lobbyists.

I’ve noted frequently the impact school choice and private-school vouchers have had on high school sports — basically, that you can’t tell parents, as Sen. Marsh has, that they know best where to school their children, and then turn around and say that doesn’t apply to sports.

The issue isn’t pure numbers. Alabama doesn’t have charter schools, and its accountability act isn’t serving that many students — according to a school-choice advocate group, the accountability act has resulted in 3,646 scholarships statewide at all grade levels, while a refundable tax-credit program for low-income parents has affected only 141 students.

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