Sunday, December 8, 2019
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Public & private schools on the same playing field

When it comes to naming a champion for an entire state composed of so many different types of high schools, state high school athletic associations consider school enrollment and other factors aimed at leveling the competitive playing field.

In Illinois, for example, schools compete in enrollment-based classifications at state tournaments. There’s a state champ in classes 1A through 8A in football, say. Larger private schools in the state, though, effectively compete in more competitive classes by having their enrollments multiplied by a factor of 1.65 before placing the school in a class. Maryland doesn’t mix public and private schools in state tournaments, so there are different class champions among private schools and among public schools.

Leveling the playing field, state by state

We’ve tried to examine how the 50 states and the District of Columbia handle the question of leveling the playing field when traditional public schools, which draw students based on geographical boundaries, compete in state championship tournaments with private schools that don’t have the same boundary restrictions.

In the table below, we indicate whether private and public schools compete in the same state series for a “state championship” and then any modifications that are made to enrollment when determining what class non-boundaried schools compete in, like 2A, 3A, and so on. This table may be updated as more information becomes available.

State Same Series? Modifications and Notes
Alabama Yes Applies multiplier of 1.35 for non-boundaried schools because data showed athletic participation in private schools is 35 percent higher than at public schools (updated 9/1/18).
Alaska Yes None.
Arizona Yes None.
Arkansas Yes Non-boundaried schools with 80 or more students in grades 9-11 are moved up one classification.
California Yes Association has 1,517 schools, including several private schools and does not adjust enrollment or apply any success formula for classification.
Colorado Yes None, but a private school success advancement system was voted down in 2013.
Connecticut Yes A 2.0 multiplier is applied to basketball only. A point system based on tournament success is used to further adjust enrollment.
Delaware Yes None.
D.C. Yes None.
Florida Some Has separation of private and public schools in select sports among small schools.
Georgia Some Ended a 1.8 multiplier formula for private schools in 2008 after eight years. Data showed that the multiplier did not impact the percentage of private schools winning state titles. Separation of private and public schools in the state’s small-school division (1A) was approved in 2012, so public and private schools do not compete against each other in that classification. In 2016, the GHSA adopted a 3-percent out-of-district rule for non-boundary schools, moving some city schools and all private schools up in classifications 2A–4A. For 2019-20, the GHSA is dropping the 3-percent rule in favor of a 2.0 multiplier on out-of-district enrollment. (Updated Sept. 2019, thanks to a reader from Watkinsville, Ga.)
Hawaii Yes Each island has its own rules, but publics and privates generally compete against each other.
Idaho Yes None.
Illinois Yes A 1.65 multiplier is applied to non-boundaried schools in all sports. The state association was sued by 37 schools in 2005, resulting in the multiplier going to a vote, which it passed. A success advancement system was later added to alter division placement based on a team’s recent postseason success, and schools may petition to move up a classification.
Indiana Yes Success advancement system is used, requiring teams in all sports to move up a classification based on postseason performance and back down if they fail after a specified time to achieve success.
Iowa Yes None, although Iowa has a separate association for girls’ sports, the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, which was launched decades ago by private schools and continues today with public schools included.
Kansas Yes None, but proposals have been made to separate public and private schools, or move private schools into higher classifications.
Kentucky Yes None.
Louisiana Yes Some chatter about private schools forming their own association.
Maine Yes None, but separation of publics and privates is officially opposed by the state association.
Maryland No Two state associations: one for private and one for public schools; very little competition, even during the season, between public and private schools.
Massachusetts Yes None.
Michigan Yes None, but schools can play up one division.
Minnesota Yes A reverse multiplier is used to reduce enrollment in some schools. The formula is based on the number of students in a school activity program and the number registered for free or reduced lunch.
Mississippi Some The state association has 13 private schools. A group of school administrators failed to ban private schools from joining the state association in 2013. Other privates compete in an independent state association that also features schools from Arkansas and Louisiana.
Missouri Yes A 1.35 multiplier is applied to private schools in all sports. An additional 2.0 multiplier is applied to single-sex schools. A court ruled that the multipliers were not unconstitutional.
Montana Yes None.
Nebraska Yes Defeated several enrollment adjustment and multiplier formulas. The debate continues.
Nevada Yes A point system, based on recent success, is used to move teams up or down a division every two years.
New Hampshire Yes None, but schools may petition to play up or down a division during a biennial classification review.
New Jersey Yes There are multiple classifications and tournaments for public and non-public schools. Some sports bring multiple state champions together to create a Tournament of Champions.
New Mexico Yes Applies a multiplier of 1.3 for all private and boarding schools.
New York Yes There are multiple athletic associations, one of which is affiliated with the National Federation of State High School Associations. It slots non-public schools into divisions based on past success, enrollment, and level of competition.
North Carolina No Separate associations for independent and Christian schools.
North Dakota Yes None.
Ohio Yes Several votes in the past. Sports-specific multipliers took effect for the 2016-17 school year, using a multiplier formula that adjusts enrollment based on where the student’s parents live and/or the educational system history of the student.
Oklahoma Yes None. A state association committee is exploring reclassification in all sports.
Oregon Yes The state association rejected a multiplier proposal in 2012. Some adjustments are made to enrollment based on the number of students eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Pennsylvania Yes Prior to 1972, parochial schools competed in a separate association. The state government stopped a proposed return to split associations in 2000. Any school may elect to play up an enrollment classification.
Rhode Island Yes None.
South Carolina Yes None, but there’s an independent school state association. Privates and publics also compete together in a separate association.
South Dakota Yes None. Schools can petition to play up one enrollment classification.
Tennessee Yes Schools are split into two divisions: Division I for publics and privates that don’t provide financial aid and Division II for privates that offer financial aid. A 1.8 multiplier is applied to private schools in Division I.
Texas No There are separate associations for public and private schools, but the University Interscholastic League (the public association) includes private schools.
Utah Yes None. Said to be researching various strategies, but none had been enacted.
Vermont Yes None.
Virginia No Separate tournaments and state associations for public and private schools, although public schools often compete against private schools during the regular season.
Washington Yes None. Single-sex schools multiplied by 2.
West Virginia Yes None.
Wisconsin Yes None. Separation of public and private schools ended in the 1990s. The state association created a committee in 2014 to examine competitive balance after a multiplier formula was proposed. A plan for a success factor was approved by the WIAA Board of Control in late 2014 and brought to the WIAA annual meeting in late April 2015, where it was replaced with a multiplier amendment, which was defeated by nearly a 2-1 margin.
Wyoming Yes None.

Schools in Michigan, where public schools compete in the same state championship tournaments as private schools but don’t use any kind of enrollment adjustment, have been debating for several years whether to create a separate athletic association for private schools that can draw students from anywhere, regardless of what school district they live in.

Jake Heilman, a junior at Forest Hills Central High School in Grand Rapids, wrote a report for his student newspaper, The Central Trend, in which he outlines the debate and presents opinions on many sides of the issue.

With the permission of the faculty advisor, we present his report here.

For many years, there has been an argument over whether athletic teams from private and public schools should compete against each other. It has come to many people’s attention as of late that a newly made petition has been formed and a stance has been taken for the public schools to “have what they deserve.”

The result of the petition: private schools would have their own postseason tournament to allow public schools a better chance at winning a state championship. Private schools would, of course, be able to play public teams throughout the season and have their respective conferences stay similar to what they are now.

The reasons why some are in favor of the petition

When you look at the difference in the two contrasting sides, there are similarities and differences. Throughout the season, all teams play the same amount of games against conference opponents, to be awarded a conference title. The teams then go into a grueling playoff battle. Some look at the teams, however, and recognize perennial powerhouses with a few new faces in the lineup each year.

Students have transferred, whether for religious purposes, educational purposes, or even based on family history or other factors.

The topic of recruiting has also been thrown around into the conversation when it comes to the schools and their team’s needs. Private schools have oftentimes been accused of creating ‘super teams’ and offering unauthorized athletic money to athletes transferring and/or enrolling in their programs. With the recruiting topic being long argued, head basketball coach at FHC, Ken George, has a different idea of why private schools need their own tournament.

“I think there are valid arguments and statistics that prove it is not a level playing field,” George said. “Now would it be an ideal situation if we made a private school league? I think there would still be issues, but there are issues right now. I certainly think something needs to be looked at.”

In boys’ basketball alone, private schools have brought home a cumulative of 31 percent of the state titles since 2000 according to fairplayoffs.com. Last season, however U of D Jesuit brought home the only Michigan High School Athletic Association state championship for private schools in Class A. They defeated a public school in that particular final.

If the sport of basketball would see a change, it may not affect FHC, but it can hit home closer than you think.

“If you look at a school like Forest Hills Eastern, who is in a league with Grand Rapids Christian, it’s clearly an unfair advantage,” George said. “These schools are the same size but the skill levels on the two teams aren’t close in comparison—especially to a school that is able to pull from anywhere in comparison to a school that is only able to pull from one geographical region. Just because the schools are similar in size doesn’t mean that the people they’re pulling from aren’t completely different.”

Not all sports can be as evident of the private vs. public dilemma faced constantly like men’s basketball can. Wrestling is one particular sport that shows that side the most. FHC’s head wrestling coach, Brad Anderson, lives in a different world when it comes to his sport of wrestling.

“If you look at football this year, it was an overwhelming majority of schools who won state titles that were private,” said Anderson, who wrestled at FHC throughout his high school career. “There is some sort of advantage there, being able to attract students while circumnavigating some MHSAA requirements. Wrestling has been interesting, because a lot of the top schools are also public. We do have, at the Division One level, Detroit Catholic Central who is a high-powered team, but they got beat last year by a public school in the state finals.”

The issue of ‘super teams’ being formed is another issue being brought to attention.

“It’s not always public vs. private, but it’s the all-star team,” Anderson said. “I’m very proud that our team is home-grown and has been born and raised here. It’s easier to do the all-star team at a parochial school because of the limited restrictions upon those schools for enrollment. I hearken back to the day when your team was the guys you played in little league with. Your team is the guy you came up in rocket football with. I would love to see a level playing field, where it’s my talent vs. your talent, and not how well you can assemble a squad.”

Reasons against the petition

When you look at the extensive sides of the argument in favor of public schools, some can forget the ability of public to beat private on many different occasions. For example, last lacrosse season, FHC beat one of the top Division One lacrosse schools in the state, Detroit Catholic Central, on the road to their state finals appearance and eventual state title.

There have been instances throughout the past seventeen years that can be overlooked by recent uprisings and petitions for the “league of their own.” Under 25 percent of state titles have been won by private schools in wrestling, both boys’ and girls’ cross country, girls’ golf, boys’ and girls’ bowling, competitive cheer, boys’ and girls’ skiing, boys’ swimming, girls’ lacrosse, softball, and track and field. Although one could look down upon these sports and dub them as “smaller” or “less popular,” it’s still a numerous amount of sports.

The competition level that private schools bring cannot be overlooked, especially when it comes down to the state championship. Detroit Catholic Central athletic director Aaron Babicz believes you’re taking away competition from athletes.

“Here’s my biggest thing,” he said. “Let’s say you play for a public school and you end up having a great run and win the state title. Let’s also say that Brother Rice is the team to beat that year and ends up winning the entire private school bracket. Don’t our athletes want to know who is truly the best? Wouldn’t you want to know who is really the outright state champ? I feel like if you asked the guys they’d say they’d be missing out on that experience.

“I think that in situations like this, it’s all about competing,” Babicz said. “It goes beyond high school athletics and into life. Cards will always be stacked against you one way or another. There will always be someone bigger and better, and you just have to fight. It goes back to the kids. I guarantee these kids would not want this kind of change to be made.”

What it would take to change the MHSAA completely

Obviously, when looking into something as major as splitting off a section of schools completely, it will take more than just a simple petition. It would require numerous meetings and numerous votes to make any sort of change in the MHSAA. FHC Athletic Director Clark Udell highlighted what public schools need for their cause.

“I think the petition will at least put a little more emphasis into what has been perceived as whining,” said Udell, who enters his 10th year as the athletic director at FHC. “The petition online goes back historically and shows the percentages of state championships won by private in comparison to public. It will hopefully put the topic on the radar for the MHSAA.”

But the MHSAA works for the schools and members who belong to the association, including the private schools. Creating two separate leagues isn’t the only alternative.

“There are ways to address public vs. private issues throughout high school sports without separation,” Udell said. “I think you look to add a multiplier to the enrollment. Let’s say Grand Rapids Catholic Central has 1,000 students, and you would use a 1.5 multiplier. So instead of being put in classification with schools that have 1,000 students, they would be put into a class closer to schools with 1,500 students instead.”

Still, Udell said, the impact on athletic programs might not be big. In every sport except football, he pointed out, every team makes the playoffs anyway. Plus, “it’s not going to affect the regular season. Schools are still going to one another. I really don’t think it would affect the postseason tournament much, either. You draw a district, a regional, and that’s where you go. Each sport would be a little bit different, but it would really just change the paradigm.”

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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