The flames on the public vs. private school debate never die. In fact, they usually take on a new life this time of year as high school football heads down to the final weeks of the postseason.
It’s a popular topic locally with Manatee High getting ready to take on private school power St. Thomas Aquinas in a Class 5A state semifinal matchup Friday night.
Many public school football coaches say private schools have a huge advantage because they don’t have so many restrictions and can get athletes to enroll at their respective schools regardless of where they live.
Private schools make up 39 percent of all the secondary schools in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Yet in the past 17 years, they have won 10 mythical national football championships awarded by USA Today in its annual rankings, which amounts to 59 percent.
“I don’t think it (the debate) is relevant. That situation is an age-old argument across the country,” said longtime St. Thomas Aquinas head football coach and athletic director George Smith.
Unlike public schools, private schools can enroll students irrespective of where their residence is located. It’s also hard to determine what classification to put them in because student population is irrelevant if a good portion of the student body is made up of high-caliber athletes.
Students in Manatee County can attend a school out of their zoned residence through school choice, but the transfer cannot be used for athletic reasons and requests are scrutinized. A football player attempting to transfer just before his senior year would find it extremely difficult if not impossible to get it approved.
This is not the case at private schools such as St. Thomas Aquinas, which won the USA Today national title in 2008. The Raiders have some key senior transfers on this year’s team whom Smith preferred not to talk about.
“Transfers aside, kids coming up from the JV and those who were backups last year have done a great job for us. They are very important to us.” Smith said. “The key for us to win the game is that we have to play harder than we did last year. This game has nothing to do with the past.”
In ’08, the Raiders best player in the secondary was Lemarcus Joyner (now at Florida State), who transferred to Aquinas his senior year. He was rated the best high school defensive back in the country by Rivals.com.
Aquinas’ most highly touted offensive lineman this year is senior transfer Bobby Hart (6-foot-6, 280 pounds), who has verbally committed to FSU and is rated one of the 10 best offensive linemen in the country.
Bobby Hart, the younger brother of former Southeast High quarterback Chris Hart, transferred from Cardinal Gibbons and lives on Florida’s east coast with his father. Another key senior transfer is defensive back, Khambrel Garland, who played at Deerfield Beach High last year.
Aquinas’ most highly touted receiver, Rashad Greene, (an FSU commitment) transferred to Aquinas prior to his junior year from Georgia where he was his school’s leading receiver in 2008.
Manatee High head football coach Joe Kinnan prefers to stay out of the private vs. public debate, but says he is playing what he believes is equivalent to an all-star team in St. Thomas Aquinas.
“Private schools don’t have an attendance zone so anybody from anywhere can go there,” Kinnan said.
“It gives them a leg up if they have a great program like those people (Aquinas) do. If you are a parent down there, you are going to look at some of the public schools and say I am not going to send my kid there. I am going to send them to another place.”
Smith attributes his team’s success to dedicated athletes who work hard and says Manatee is on an equal footing with his program in success.
“We have been very fortunate and have played pretty well. We are kind of like Manatee,” Smith said. “They are like 47-3 in the last few years and haven’t lost many like us. We have some new guys in the secondary. We have one guy who played last year for us and other kids we kind of plugged in, and they have been doing all right.”