Another school year is underway in our state, which means that it’s time to start complaining about the Georgia High School Association.
The folks at GHSA have the thankless task of administering and scheduling the games between high school athletic teams, while trying to ensure that everyone plays on an equal footing.
“What we want is competitive parity on the field,” said state Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, who chairs a legislative committee that oversees GHSA.
As part of that mission, GHSA is preparing to reclassify the 455 high schools that they regulate, placing schools at various enrollment levels in geographic regions for athletic competition purposes.
It’s a process that legislators are watching with a wary eye, because they know they will hear outraged complaints from constituents with kids who play on high school football or basketball teams. The parents will protest that the GHSA is discriminating against their child’s school while rival schools get an unfair advantage.
This year, as in years past, some of the loudest complaints will be that private schools and independent city schools have the edge over schools in county systems because the smaller schools can “recruit” students who live outside their boundaries but have superior athletic skills.
“Some of the private schools have scholarships for underprivileged students,” said state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga. “Some of the scholarships go to students with a financial need who just happen to be great athletes.”
“It’s all about the private schools and the city schools winning all the championships, especially in the lower levels,” said Dave Hunter, the retired football coach at Gwinnett County’s Brookwood High School. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Hunter is one of several people working on a reclassification plan that would place schools in regions with schools of similar enrollment levels and hopefully discourage recruiting at the same time.
As currently drafted, the plan provides that public, private and city schools could all draw students from within the entire county in which that school is located, not just from inside the boundaries of a city or a local attendance zone.
Schools that have more than 3 percent of their total enrollment residing outside the county would be moved up another level in classification — from A to AA, or from AA to AAA — so that they would have to play against schools with larger enrollments. This is intended to nullify the advantages of any recruiting.
GHSA has good intentions, but ongoing changes in school policies could make its task all but impossible.
There has been a steady movement toward open enrollment and greater school choice, which makes it easier for parents to send their kids outside the local attendance zone to a more distant school. That, in turn, makes it easier for coaches to recruit talented athletes to attend their schools.
State Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, the chairman of the House Education Committee, noted that a new state law will also make it easier for more students to withdraw from a “failing” high school and demand a transfer to another school.
“They’re going to go after those good athletes now in those failing schools,” Coleman said. “One principal told me, ‘I’ve got eight football players who should be going here, but they’re in another school because there was room there.’”
“Recruiting is at the heart of it,” Bethel said in agreement. “One of the underlying factors in competitive balance is recruitment.”
The disputes between public and private schools over recruiting have been a hot political issue for years.
In the 2000 legislative session, House Speaker Tom Murphy persuaded lawmakers to pass a bill that multiplied the enrollment of private schools by 50 percent for classification purposes, forcing them to move up and compete against larger public schools. That law is no longer in effect.
“We don’t want a Tom Murphy witch hunt,” said state Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun.
Legislators also don’t want endless arguments between public and private schools over athletic recruiting. At a committee hearing last week, lawmakers urged GHSA representatives to somehow come up with a workable classification plan that would solve all the problems.
“This is something the legislature does not want to get hold of,” Coleman said. “It’s like a wildcat in a sack — you all grab that and run with it, boys.”
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.