For a while, I held off on posting about this topic. Mostly because I felt it was A.) a stagnant issue and B.) I didn't have a particularly fresh perspective to offer. Yes, everybody knows about the public-private school debate when it comes to Pennsylvania scholastic sports. It seems to rear its head every year, typically around basketball season, when the dominance of private schools seems most acute.
To review: Critics point out that private schools are not constricted by typical school district boundaries, and therefore can attract players from outside what would normally be considered their immediate area. This, those same critics say, gives private schools a competitive advantage against public schools, who are restricted to using players within their district boundaries.
Earlier today, the Daily Record/Sunday News sports department received a letter from from Karns City School District superintendent Dr. Larry Henry and Lewistown girls' basketball coach Kevin Kodish about the public-private school topic. I've posted the letter below, followed by my take on the issue. (Here's a hint, you'll know very quickly which side of the debate the authors of the letter are on.)
Sports Editor:The PIAA recently concluded its annual Private (and Charter) School Championship Party (The PIAA Basketball Championships). Despite having just 25% of PIAA membership, private schools manage to win about 75% of the state basketball titles. A similar trend has recently started to take shape in regard to the football championships as well. This year, even in Class AAAA football a private school came out on top -- LaSalle College defeated State College for the title.To recap history, here's the situation:When PIAA was formed in 1913, it was a voluntary association of public high schools. Private schools were not eligible to join PIAA. That changed in 1972, almost 59 years after the formation of PIAA, with the passage of legislation requiring PIAA to admit applying private schools as members.
The PIAA acknowledges that private schools are oftentimes dominating the PIAA basketball championship tournaments. A few years back, many high school principals sent a form letter to PIAA asking that separate championship tournaments be created for public and private schools. PIAA Executive Director Brad Cashman responded to the principals via letter, and said the following."We believe that the primary obstacle to substantial reform is the language of the existing legislation. Should you desire to effectuate substantial change, you may want to consider contacting your legislators and seeking an amendment of Section 511 (b.1) of the Public School Code of 1949, as amended."Because of their very nature, private schools are vastly different from public schools. Geographic boundaries must be adhered to on the public school level, while private schools have no such limitations. Thus, there aren't uniform standards being followed. All schools, whether public or private, deserve to know who their respective champions are according to size and type of school.You don't have to look any further than New Jersey, New York, or Maryland to see examples of states that crown separate public and private school state champions. Pennsylvania's public schools realize that the 1972 law required the PIAA to admit private schools to the association's membership rolls if the schools met the membership qualifications. That law requires that the private schools be given membership access, but it does not dictate that they be classified in the same manner as public schools.When one considers the current classification system, schools are already being classified according to size and gender parameters. If the public and private schools have separate playoff tournaments, all schools would be classified according to "type" of school first. Public schools have no problem with private schools being members of the organization - it is the playoff structure that creates the problems. In fact, if separate playoffs are held for all sports, private schools will be helped from a competition standpoint in some sports.To remedy this situation that continues yearly, we are asking legislators to do the following:Propose legislation that ALLOWS (or permits) the PIAA to conduct separate public and private school championship tournaments in any sport where the PIAA Board of Control believes it is appropriate.Right now, the PIAA points to the state Legislature, saying the legislators created the current situation. At the same time, many legislators say, "The PIAA is an association that can do what it wants with its championship tournaments." The PIAA legal counsel says without legislation, the PIAA would be sued if it tried to create separate tournaments for public and private schools.The legislation we are asking legislators to propose and endorse would simply ALLOW the PIAA to conduct the separate tournaments -- it would not MANDATE that they take that action. The PIAA would be able to make that decision, and would have a law backing them up.We are more than willing to review this situation with anyone concerned and would point out that until this year District 9's Karns City High School was the last AA Public School to win a State Title -- and that was in the year 2000!Dr. Larry HenrySuperintendentKarns City School DistrictKevin KodishGirls Basketball CoachLewistown Area High School
Obviously the letter raises some various and nuanced issues. I won't weigh in on every point it makes. I will admit that I'm not in favor of separate state championships for public and private schools. I think the more state title games you have, the more you devalue what the award means. As it is, there are eight state champions crowned in basketball, boys and girls combined. Could you imagine if there were 12 state champions? What about 16? How much would we have to divide things up before we can consider everything "fair."
I know that's not what the people who wrote this letter are intending. My point is that it's a slippery slope. Once you start adding state championships and further dividing things up, where do you stop?
I know these are legitimate concerns, and I know private schools do, inherently, have some degree of a competitive advantage. The bottom line: Life ain't fair folks. Find me any other level of sport -- pro or college -- where everybody is put on an equal playing field. No matter what the PIAA does, there will be people complaining about some other inequity that needs to be addressed. Hey, winning a state championship SHOULD be hard. And these titles are still decided by what happens on the court.
At the end of the day, is it worth further devaluing what a state title means in order to pursue some unachievable sense of ultimate equity? The answer, I suppose, depends on who you ask.