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Windermere Observer Tuesday, Apr. 26, 2016 2 years ago

SIDELINE SCENE: Attempting perspective on the ‘school choice bill’

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The massive education bill signed into law recently by Gov. Rick Scott has important implications for high school sports in Florida.
by: Steven Ryzewski Senior Sports Editor

It’s official — HB 7029 has been signed into law.

The bill has been commonly referred to as the “school choice bill,” and it encompasses a lot of policy that concerns school choice, charter schools and some other issues not usually associated with what you might read on a sports page. 

Steven Ryzewski

That you are, in fact, reading about it on a sports page is because of a few specific policies concerning high school athletics and the implications of some of the legislation’s overarching policies.

Although “school choice bill” is how many refer to it, there are those within high-school sports circles that may rename it the “free agency bill.” 

Different versions of the bill have popped up in recent years, but this year, it finally passed. Many coaches, athletic directors and administrators aren’t pleased about what it could mean for high school sports in our state. 

The doomsday scenario is dynasties, rampant transferring and “have-not programs” that simply can’t keep up with the Joneses.

These are all things that already exist.

Still, because of this uncertainty and fear, the new legislation and its impact deserve a second look.

First, there is the open-enrollment provision that would allow students to enroll at any public school in Florida — across district lines — if there is room.

The doomsday scenario is dynasties, rampant transferring and “have-not programs” that simply can’t keep up with the Joneses.

These are all things that already exist.

This provision, which would take effect with the 2017-18 school year, probably most directly relates to the “free agency” fears. If signed into law, there would be no reason for Billy to “move in” with his aunt who lives in the destination school zone because, so long as that school has room and Billy can get to and from school, he can transfer.

The law also loosens transferring regulations — a lot. 

A student can transfer to a different school and become immediately available to play a sport at his or her new school, even if the sport is in season — as long as the student had not been participating that season in that same sport at the school he or she just left (with few exceptions).  

Although this affords the absurd — but inevitable — possibility of student-athletes who will play for four different programs in four years, it at least prevents Suzie from starting the season playing softball for one school but, when she can’t find her way off the bench through the first six games, transfers to another school where she can start.

Other items of note include the bills’ imposition of stiff penalties for recruiting by coaches and leaving eligibility guidelines up to the districts. 

Another important element, especially for smaller schools, allows schools to join the FHSAA on a per-sport basis. 

This means we will see more growth of independent conferences such as the Sunshine State Athletic Conference, in which CFCA, Legacy and Windermere Prep compete, and that those leagues will likely have more autonomy going forward (currently teams can participate in the SSAC within the overriding structure of the FHSAA, which is why its teams are stuck playing eight-game regular seasons). 

There are some legitimate concerns about what this all could mean for the essence of high-school sports. After all, the only thing that really differentiates varsity sports from the big business of travel and club sports is the idea of kids representing their school and community.

But, due in part to collaboration with the FHSAA during the bill’s formulation, there do seem to be some important qualifiers in place that keep this from becoming the death knell for mid- and lower-level varsity programs — and there’s also a point where high-school sports people have to be honest about what is already going on.

Look, Florida already has led the way in past years for opening itself up to the wild, wild west-style of transfers and, if anything, this bill at least takes some of the fraud and deception out of the equation and lends some transparency to what’s going on. 

One of the key components to the open-enrollment provision is that schools have to actually have room for their new starting tight end — and that provision should quell some concerns that a powerhouse football program might bring in a dozen transfers every season because the law at leasts recognizes there must be desks for those students. 

Given how crowded schools are in Orange County and around Central Florida, this part of the provision seems particularly noteworthy. Few, if any, destination schools have room in the first place. 

Given how crowded schools are in Orange County and around Central Florida, this part of the provision seems particularly noteworthy. Few, if any, destination schools have room in the first place. 

So, Billy might still need to move to Winter Garden if he wants to play for, say, West Orange because — even with the opening of a relief school on the horizon — West Orange still figures to be at, near or over capacity.

It’s also worth considering that students who go to school outside of their school zone aren’t being bussed across county lines with taxpayer dollars. If a family is dedicated enough to arrange transportation to and from a school that is 30 minutes away, then perhaps it’s not our place to tell them to do otherwise. We can debate what it says about parenting when athletics can play such a large role in where a teen attends high school, but we probably don’t need to be in the business of legislating questionable parenting.

It’s important for everyone to take a step back and examine which situations really make sense for switching schools for athletic reasons. Most recruiting in sports other than football doesn’t even go on as much in varsity sports, anyway — it happens on the club level. 

So, for so many athletes, changing schools based on athletic opportunity doesn’t really make a ton of sense. But, for those whom it does make sense for, there are now increased options – and that’s not a bad thing.

Colorado already has had an open-enrollment policy for more than a decade. Around just 10% of that state’s students attend a school beside that which he or she is zoned for. 

It goes to show that while some will take advantage of this new legislation, transferring will not make sense for everyone. 

At the end of the day, high-school sports are about community — and I don’t think you can change that with a piece of legislation.

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