Not surprisingly, the competitive balance of schools in high school sports is a frequent conversation topic at National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) meetings each year. Otherwise known as the public school vs. private school issue, NFHS-member state high school associations in many states have regularly attempted to “level the playing field” to offset the perceived advantages of private schools.
“There is a great deal of interest in (establishing competitive equity) by all the state associations,” said Bob Gardner, NFHS executive director. “Though there have been numerous proposals, none have been a cure-all or a perfect solution.”
The NFHS has an advisory role when it comes to state associations attempting to find a better system for competition within high school athletics.
“Each state is really unique,” Gardner said. “We try to be the conduit to provide information and share that collectively.”
Some states have implemented procedures that address competitive balance, while others are considering their options or have yet to implement a system.
Indiana is in its third year of competition under the provisions of Rule 2-5, which provides for a reclassification of schools in team sports based on their previous tournament success. Schools are assigned a point value for the final level of the tournament series (sectional championship up through state championship) during a previous reclassification period.
“The percentages of private champions in team sports where Rule 2-5 is in effect has dropped to 35 percent over the 18 years of multiple class sports,” said Bobby Cox, commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association. “Football still hovers around 40 percent.”
The IHSAA has never used a multiplier to classify school enrollments, Cox said. The only item being discussed as a modification to the success factor is to limit the number of classes a school may move down to one per cycle.
In Illinois, a multiplier (1.65) has been in place for non-boundary schools (private schools) for about a decade to determine their postseason class, according to Matt Troha, assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association.
The number is still the same today, but a series of waivers has been added. Illinois is looking at each non-boundary school’s program sport-by-sport. If there is enough success, they are multiplied, but if they haven’t had that, they are not.
“A new step that was added this year is that non-boundary programs that have reached the state finals twice in four years, including at least one appearance in the past two seasons, move up one class,” Troha said.
The Georgia High School Association recently passed a play-up penalty for all member schools – public and private.
“It’s fairly simple: Any school that takes more than three percent of its students from outside the county in which the school is physically located will have to move up one classification from where its enrollment numbers place it,” said Steve Figueroa, director of media relations for the GHSA.
Figueroa said the rule is called the “Attendance Zone Restriction” but it does not apply to any schools in the smallest classification (Class A) since that class already employs a public/private split during the playoffs.
“We have been holding separate public/private playoffs in Class A for three years now and it seems to be very popular,” Figueroa said.
Georgia still has about 20 percent of its schools that win 100 percent of the state titles, Figueroa said. A 1.5 multiplier to private schools was stopped after a couple years when it proved to be ineffective, according to Figueroa.
The GHSA has started to gather the enrollment figures and the out-of-county percentages for each school, and it is anticipated that all private school members above Class A will be affected and therefore will move up one class.
“We hope that will ease the public/private problems a bit,” Figueroa said. “We will see.”
Minnesota’s system has been in place for 15 years and uses a free-and-reduced lunch program to account for socioeconomic factors. Minnesota has Class AA and A - the top 128 enrollment schools are in Class AA.
The Minnesota Department of Education furnishes the 9-12 full enrollment numbers and the 9-12 free-and-reduced numbers.
“It is a system that has been used for so long, it is an accepted practice by member schools of the Minnesota State High School League,” said Communications Coordinator Tim Leighton.
In Ohio, principals approved a proposal that uses a multiplier formula for adjusting enrollment numbers based on where the student’s parents reside and/or the educational system history of the student. All schools are subject to the factors of the formula, which will be applied in football, soccer, volleyball, basketball, baseball and softball.
Tim Stried, Ohio High School Athletic Association director of information services, said the plan, which is scheduled to start in 2016-17, addresses how non-public schools obtain their students compared to public schools.
Since 2000, non-public schools have won 42 percent of the state titles though they make up only 17 percent of the membership. In girls volleyball, 75 percent of the state championships since 2000 have been claimed by non-public schools.
Other states are reviewing options and information each school year.
In Utah, a proposal to consider success as a factor in realignment for public and private schools did not pass. The Utah High School Activities Association does not use a multiplier for public or private schools, according to Assistant Director Josh Taylor. Utah entered a new alignment this school year.
“But being at the beginning of a new alignment, we are in the process of researching multipliers and other states’ alignments for informational purposes ourselves,” Taylor said.
The Nebraska School Activities Association (NSAA) has held several classification review meetings to consider what alternative processes could be instituted to alleviate any of the perceived competitive balance issues, according to Assistant Director Sarah Sasse-Kildow.
“The NSAA is currently involved in a classification study that may reach into the public-private debate, but certainly will take a look at enrollment ratios from top to bottom in each classification,” Sasse-Kildow said.
The conversations continue in Colorado, but there are no imminent votes on anything related to public and private schools. The Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) has several bylaws that allow for a school to “play up” in classification if it feels it warrants that move, according to CHSAA Assistant Commissioner Bert Borgmann.
If a school has a four-year history of being below a .250 winning percentage and other factors, it can request to “play down” a classification but cannot qualify for the state playoffs.
In Wisconsin, a group was assigned to study competitive balance in late spring 2014, according to Todd Clark, Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) director of communications. Clark said the group studied other state models and other potential solutions to the perceived imbalance.
A plan for a success factor and promotion to a higher division was approved by the WIAA Board of Control in late 2014 and brought to the WIAA annual meeting in late April 2015. Before it was voted upon, the proposal was replaced with a multiplier amendment, which was defeated by nearly a 2-1 margin.
“So it remains status quo with divisional placements determined by enrollment,” Clark said.
Mike Dyer is high school sports editor for the Cincinnati Enquirer. He has been covering high school sports in Ohio since 2000 overall and has been in Cincinnati since 2004. He previously worked for the Akron Beacon Journal and the Sun Newspapers. Some of his articles have also appeared in the Washington Post, Orlando Sentinel, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.