State Politics

Bills to revamp high school sports spark debate

TALLAHASSEE -- What if some high school, let’s say a charter school, could openly recruit the next LeBron James out of middle school, pair him with a hyper-talented Dwyane Wade wannabe, snap up a Chris Bosh-like sharpshooter and assemble a super team like the Miami Heat did in free agency last year?

What if openly beckoning gifted high school athletes, forbidden under the current public-school rules (even though it has been known to happen), was OK?

Critics of a proposal making its through the Legislature say that type of scenario is possible if the measure becomes law.

There are actually two proposals to reshape high school sports, but the most dramatic would allow private, charter and virtual schools to have their own independent athletic league, essentially freeing them from the strictures of the Florida High School Athletic Association.

The other would impose new regulations on FHSAA investigations. It would also enable children who transfer from public to private schools to participate in athletic programs freely.

Both bills passed through their respective committees last week, thanks largely to support from Republican lawmakers.

The sponsors say the proposals are aimed at creating opportunities for children enrolled in private and charter schools -- and limiting the power of the FHSAA, which has governed public and private-school sports for nearly a century.

“This would increase the ability of private school students to participate in interscholastic sports in private schools,” said Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who submitted the bill in the House.

Of course, the strongest critics are with the FHSAA, who say the proposed changes would make enforcing the rules a virtual nightmare.

Other critics view the proposals as a strategy to bolster the state’s network of charter schools, which are funded by tax dollars, but run by independent governing boards. They say allowing charter schools to belong to a new, independent league would create more of a draw for top student athletes.

“It’s always been my impression that charter schools are public schools,” said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. “So all of a sudden, charter schools can be in a private-school organization?”

Under Florida law, the FHSAA is the only body that can oversee high school athletics. The nonprofit organization is made up of 463 public school and 227 private schools, and directs statewide competition for more than 30 sports.

Over the years, the FHSAA has drawn the ire of some schools for its investigations into recruiting, which is disallowed. Some schools have also accused the FHSAA of being overly punitive to schools when the rules are broken.

Four years ago, a handful of small, independent schools -- many of which had been found guilty of violating FHSAA rules -- decided to form the Sunshine Independent Athletic Association. But the SIAA has never been recognized by state law, and its 11 member schools can compete only against other member schools.

The proposal in the Senate would add the SIAA to the state law on high school athletics -- and give all private, charter and virtual schools in Florida the option to join. It would also allow for interleague play.

What is not clear is to what extent the SIAA could play by its own rules -- or if recruiting would be even allowed.

Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, said he filed the bill simply to break up the FHSAA’s monopoly on school sports.

Supporters, including Republican Sen. Ellyn Bodganoff, from Fort Lauderdale, agreed that competition would be a good thing.

“I suspect if we allowed all public schools the option of a second choice, many of them would take it,” Bodganoff said. “Many people are frustrated with the system.”

Bodganoff said she would even support allowing for athletic recruiting, saying magnet schools recruit top academic and artistic talent on a regular basis.

This week, the proposal got a stamp of approval from the Senate Education Committee in a 4-1 vote.

But FHSAA Executive Director Roger Dearing said it would create a bevy of logistical problems. “If charter schools go to this association, somebody better make sure they are adhering to Title IX rules involving gender equity in athletic programs and statutes,” Dearing said.

If nothing else, the debate has underscored the muscle that charter schools and private schools have in Tallahassee.

Over the past decade, lawmakers have made it easier for high-performing charter schools to expand and create sister schools. There has also been strong support for voucher programs.

Private schools, however, don’t seem to be flocking to the SIAA.

A handful of private-school groups this past week actually denounced the legislation, saying all schools should play by one set of rules.

“I’m not going to support legislation that is built for 11 schools that can’t seem to follow the policies and rules,” said Phil Farver, the athletic director at Indian Rocks Christian in Vero Beach.

Miami Christian Athletic Director James Colzie, who serves on the FHSAA’s Board of Directors, said he’s been contacted by many private school athletic directors in South Florida who have told him they are happy with the current system.

“We’re creating a monster here,” he said.