The public–private divide

With the last fall state tournament taking place in Wisconsin, Ally Jansen writes:

High school sports play a significant role in the lives of many young individuals. Once tournament time rolls around for the sport that is currently in season, everything else fades in importance and the focus locks in on winning the next game.

Battling for the chance to play once more.

Fighting to remain as long as possible.

Every team prays that they have what it takes to make it to the final destination: the state tournament championship game. Any athlete who has a love for the game carries the dream to bring home a gold ball for their school and community.

Each year, a select number of teams will make it to the Wisconsin state tournament; and each year, these teams contain a mix of both public and private schools. The difference between the athletic teams of these two types of schools is the way the teams are created. Public schools take their pick of players from the students available at their school; smaller schools take every student they can get- sometimes it is a miracle just to have enough kids for a team. Bigger schools with more students have the chance to hold tryouts, picking the talent they want and cutting what they don’t.

But private schools are completely different. These are schools that cost almost as much as college tuition to attend, and their athletes are not just students from the area. These athletes are recruited from around the country to attend these specific schools at a reduced cost, or even for free. These schools eliminated the idea of local talent, which gives them a leg-up on their public counterparts.

The state tournament is divided into divisions; the number of divisions depends on the sport involved. Schools are divided based on their enrollment numbers, with higher divisions correlating with smaller schools. A private school may be as tiny as the smallest public school, but that does not make the competition fair. The public school has a small number of students, and an even smaller number of athletes to choose from. The chances of having multiple gifted athletes are minute; whereas the private school hand-picks student-athletes from around the country, which significantly increases their chances of having multiple gifted athletes.

Anybody should be able to see how pitting these two types of schools against each other, based only on enrollment numbers, is unfair.

Each year, in almost every sport, the state tournament will see a public school play a private school.

In many cases, the public school is not victorious.

I once saw a small school from my area lose a football state championship when the other team’s kicker made a field goal. Fair enough, right? That is, only until you consider the fact that the kicker was from Texas, and this was a Wisconsin state championship game.

Something needs to change. In the past, these two types of schools did have separate tournaments at the season’s close, and a fairer playing field was imminent. The decision to combine them was a mistake that needs to be reversed.

Sure, sports are about more than just winning. But when did high school sports become important enough to move these young kids away from their family and hometowns? If they are truly as gifted as recruiters from private schools think, I am a firm believer that they will receive recognition and success, no matter the school they play for or the state they are in.

Let’s separate private and public schools into two tournaments again. Let’s even the playing field. I am a firm supporter of “Public Power,” as the kids are calling it these days.

With three divisions of football remaining, here is the complete list of state team champions over the past year (with private schools listed in italics):
Boys swimming: Waukesha South/Catholic Memorial, Monona Grove.
Team wrestling: Kaukauna, Ellsworth, Stratford.
Girls hockey: Schofield D.C. Everest.
Boys hockey: Hudson.
Girls basketball: Appleton North, Beaver Dam, Madison Edgewood (over Greendale Martin Luther), Howards Grove (over La Crosse Aquinas), Loyal.
Boys basketball: Stevens Point, La Crosse Central, Appleton Xavier, Milwaukee Destiny (a Milwaukee Public Schools charter school), Barneveld. (Marshfield Columbus Catholic and Manitowoc Roncalli also played at state.)
Boys golf: Hartland Arrowhead (over Milwaukee Marquette), Madison Edgewood, Fond du Lac Springs.
Boys tennis: Milwaukee Marquette, Racine Prairie (over Madison Edgewood).
Girls soccer: Brookfield Central, Whitefish Bay, Waukesha Catholic Memorial, Brookfield Academy.
Girls track and field: Milwaukee King, Wittenberg–Birnamwood, Algoma, Chippewa Falls.
Boys track and field: Kimberly, Appleton Xavier, Coleman, Madison La Follette.
Spring baseball: Kimberly, West Salem, La Crosse Aquinas and Athens.
Softball: Chippewa Falls McDonell Central, Juda/Albany (over Stevens Point Pacelli), Laconia, Rice Lake, Kaukauna.
Summer baseball: West Bend West over Milwaukee Marquette.
Boys cross country: Middleton, Valders, Durand.
Girls cross country: Sun Prairie, Freedom, Dodgeland.
Girls swimming: Middleton and Madison Edgewood.
Girls golf: Hartland Arrowhead, La Crosse Aquinas.
Girls tennis: Mequon Homestead and Milwaukee University School. (Three of the four teams in Division 2 were private schools.)
Boys volleyball: Milwaukee Marquette.
Girls volleyball: Burlington, Lakeside Lutheran, Lake Country Lutheran (over Eau Claire Regis), Clayton (over Oshkosh Lourdes).
Boys soccer: Milwaukee Marquette, Whitefish Bay, Mount Horeb and Racine Prairie.
Football: Bangor over Black Hawk in Division 7, Fond du Lac Springs over Iola–Scandinavia in Division 6, Amherst over Lake Country Lutheran in Division 5, Lodi over St. Croix Central in Division 4. (No private schools are playing today.)

Given that around 15 percent of the schools in Wisconsin are private schools, the argument could be made that private schools are overrepresented at state. The issue is particularly noticeable in girls volleyball. One Division 1 team, two Division 2 teams, two Division 3 teams and two Division 4 teams, out of a total of 20 state teams, were private schools this year. In 2014, three of the four state girls volleyball champions were private schools.

You may notice a number of repeat schools italicized in the previous list — Milwaukee Marquette, Waukesha Catholic Memorial, La Crosse Aquinas, Madison Edgewood and Appleton Xavier, to name five. Fond du Lac Springs is a perennial in football. Burlington Catholic Central has been well represented at state boys tournaments.

You may also notice a number of repeat schools not italicized in that list, chiefly Hartland Arrowhead. Cuba City has been dominant in girls and boys basketball for decades. Kimberly plays today for its fifth consecutive Division 1 football title, having won 69 consecutive games. If you were a freshman at KHS in the fall of 2013, you never saw your Papermakers lose a football game, and the Class of 2018 may be able to say the same thing after this afternoon’s game. Wisconsin now has open public-school enrollment, so if a high school football player wants to play for potential state champion Kimberly, only the Kimberly School District can stop that. (School districts can set limits on how many open-enrollment students can come in, but school districts cannot prevent students from open-enrolling out of the school district.)

The issue has to do with what people consider to be legitimate reasons to not have your child enrolled in the school district where they live. Republicans favored private school choice for Milwaukee Public Schools students because of the crappy state of MPS schools. That extended to public school students statewide. If a better educational opportunity exists in another school district for a family’s child, why should that child not be able to take advantage of that opportunity? The flip side, however, is whether an athletics should be part of that “educational opportunity.”

The reason people get more upset over private-school athletic dynasties than public-school athletic dynasties is the accusation that private schools recruit, either openly or covertly,1 students who otherwise would go to public schools. Private schools have the right to set their own admissions standards and even, I suppose, give tuition discounts (up to 100 percent) to whichever students they like, including gifted athletes. Whether that is right depends on your point of view. Whether private schools, which are smaller in enrollment in the public schools within the metropolitan area from which they recruit students, should compete in the same enrollment division as small-town or rural schools is Jansen’s point.

There have been proposals to do something about that. Minnesota weights enrollment by the percentage of students who get free or reduced-price lunch. Illinois has a multiplier for private schools. Both were considered and rejected in Wisconsin. So was a so-called “success factor” that would have pushed schools that get to state, public or private, up an enrollment class.

The latest proposal from a small-town school superintendent who sits on the WIAA Board of Control is to eliminate the public or private distinctions, but instead assign schools based on the U.S. Census classification of the community they’re in, moving up schools smaller than a certain size if they fit in the City or Suburban category. That would move some, but not all, private schools upward, with the added effect of moving many public schools to smaller enrollment classes. It’s being considered for basketball, possibly as early as next year, and my guess if it’s approved and it has no big issues, it will extend to other sports in the following year.

This is not a universally loved plan. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported:

Milwaukee-area athletic directors and administrators in attendance at the area meeting in Greenfield two weeks ago essentially dismissed the idea like a shot swatted into the fifth row. There was absolutely no interest in discussing it further. Zero. In every other meeting state-wide, there was a general interest in continuing the discussion.

What that means is anyone’s guess. The plan we see now doesn’t have to be the one that is voted on early next year and there is obviously no guarantee anything will pass.

What is clear is that schools in the Milwaukee area need to make sure their opinions are heard and that they contribute to the process. Otherwise, you might not like what you get.

“My hope is that through the coaches advisory, sports advisory and advisory council process that they tease out some things that make it better or make it more closer to the end product,” said board member Luke Francois, who crafted the plan.

Monday’s area meeting at Mount Horeb High School was the last of seven the WIAA held around the state. Schools in Mount Horeb’s region have been the loudest in the push for greater competitive equity in the state. Francois, the superintendent at Mineral Point, represents the area.

As the plan reads now, any urban schools with an enrollment below 600 would play in Division 3. That means you Salam (enrollment 151) and Heritage Christian (165). Ditto for Milwaukee Juneau (203) and Milwaukee Academy of Science (200). Defending Division 4 state champion Destiny (285) could handle the move up a division on the boys side, but the girls team won one game last season.

Using the most current enrollment numbers, the enrollment disparity in the division would be 588-61.

As one administrator noted Monday, “That’s not good for kids.”

When the plan was discussed at Greenfield, it was ripped for segregating schools and some wondered its passage would set the up WIAA for a lawsuit.

I don’t like the plan. If the issue of competitive equity is going to be dealt with, it should be done in a manner that doesn’t just help smaller schools in one sport. It should apply to all sports and do so in a way that doesn’t target schools because of their location.

Otherwise, you’ll get what we have now, which is many people in this part of state feeling like they’re targeted because of their success.

But that’s just me talking. I’m not a coach or an AD or a principal of students who would be affected by this. Those are the people who need to make sure they’re heard on this topic.

The WIAA plans to convene its basketball coaches advisory committee as soon as possible. At that meeting, the group can vote in favor or vote against what has been proposed or amend it and then make a vote. It will then continue to move through the committee structure and eventually back to the board of control for its January meeting. At that time a final vote is expected to be taken.

”This is where I’d look to my friends in the southeastern part of the state to help us tweak this to help us address their concerns,” Francois said.

Many of the sentiments in that Journal Sentinel opinion could be said to express the attitude that “we’ve got ours; the hell with you.” There is a line roughly from metro Green Bay to metro Madison east of which population growth, including school enrollment growth, is taking place (except in the city of Milwaukee), and west of which population growth is not taking place. Schools east of that line are able to spend more money on activities, including athletics, because they have more students and more money.

Another option would be to simply assign private schools to their own state tournament classes. The WIAA could, for instance, change from five basketball divisions to four public-school divisions and two private-school divisions and keep the state tournament at three days. (In fact, adding a division would add a session to state and thus bring in more money, something lost when the WIAA went from four divisions to five, eliminating the Division 1 quarterfinal round.) That would negate the rationale for the merger of the WIAA and the former Wisconsin Independent Schools Athletic Association in 2000. Private schools don’t appear to want to be handicapped, but public schools the size of private schools claim they’re already being handicapped.

The even bigger issue, perhaps, is how society feels about sports. You can tell high school students and their parents that it’s much easier to earn academic scholarships in college than athletic scholarships, and the message goes in one ear and out the other. You can pass on the percentage of high school students who become professional athletes — 1 percent or less. You can point out that high schools produce more professional musicians than pro athletes. No dose of reality seems to work on high school students with unrealistic expectations, or parents forcing aspirations on their own kids that they themselves couldn’t reach.

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