Right now students can attend any high school they choose on two conditions there is room at the school and the reason for the transfer is not athletics.
Senator Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, wants to change that.
"I realize that I am committing heresy in some circles, but I think the Legislature should at least have this discussion," he told the Senate's Standing Education Committee Thursday morning. "I want to create a more laissez faire environment. Let the programs and athletes seek each other out. Let the students go where there is the best fit."
Madsen told the committee, which passed SB223 out of committee with a favorable recommendation 4-2, that students who want to transfer for athletic reasons "should not be discriminated against."
The current rules and policy, he said, "creates an incompatibility." Madsen pointed out that there are talented athletes who may live in the boundary of a school that has a marginal program and may want to transfer to a school with a more successful or compatible program so they can better "highlight" their skills and "maybe even earn a scholarship."
On the other hand, he said, there are students who are not particularly athletic who live in the boundaries of a school that has a top-notch program and "despite their best effort and diligence, would never see a single down." They, too, should be allowed to transfer to a school where they might have the opportunity to play.
The Utah High School Activities Association and Utah PTA representatives spoke against the bill.
"Laissez faire is a great economic concept," said UHSAA associate director Bart Thompson. It will not work in this situation, however, "because the student is not only a consumer, they're also a resource and also a product of the school. If we allow students to transfer for athletic reasons, they will become even more of a resource, rather than a consumer."
He said the ability of students to transfer for athletic reasons would degrade "the vast majority of programs."
"That's exactly what we're in the business of preventing," Thompson said. "We're attempting to create as level a playing field as possible."
UHSAA attorney Mark Van Wagoner called the bill an attempt by some legislators to control high school athletics from afar.
"This is a committee for education; this is not a committee for activities" he said. "I don't know why some people are so concerned with governing high school sports and not with governing the high schools themselves. I would not like to play against Cottonwood football if every kid on the team were Stanley Havili."
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, spoke in favor of the bill and cited transfer issues at a new charter school, American Leadership Academy, as evidence that the rules need to be changed.
"It was draconian in the way the coaches piled on those poor kids," he said. "I do have concerns about the idea of super teams, but what this bill seeks to address is the needs of the individual students, not the system."
Van Wagoner said much of what was used as anecdotal evidence was "inaccurate."
"I was shocked that Sen. Stephenson had been so misinformed," he said. Van Wagoner said there were four students who were denied the opportunity to play sports at ALA, but the school did have a hearing over the fact that they failed to file transfer papers for several football players. All of those players were allowed to play after the paper work was complete.
Incidentally, one of those players who was denied eligibility for athletics returned to her home school so she could play basketball. The other two girls sued the UHSAA for the right to play and the Fourth District Court upheld the UHSAA's decision to deny them eligibility.
"Indeed," Van Wagoner said. "The ALA administration apologized to the Association for its failure. We heard none of the horror stories (mentioned) by Sen. Stephenson."
Van Wagoner said the bill would allow students to transfer if their teams didn't do well and they wanted to play in the state tournament. It would also be a problem for coaches who want to discipline players because those students could transfer elsewhere and play immediately.
"This may be the strangest, least considered, and most nefarious proposal for high school sports I have seen in more than 30 years," he said. "It would destroy high school sports."
Van Wagoner said it was "silly" to think that parents and students wouldn't create super teams or change schools several times in an effort to get their children a college scholarship.
Director of the Sutherland Institute Paul Mero spoke on behalf of the bill and said it doesn't change any of the rules governing eligibility or undue influence or recruiting.
"It does nothing to alter the current process and procedures for athletic tryouts," he said. He cited an audit from 2003 that noted enforcement was sometimes inconsistent.
He said that while the open enrollment law allows parents to choose from any school with room for their students, "the UHSAA has said, in effect, hold your horses."
He said "just as our laws can create criminals, our rules can create rule breakers out of otherwise honest and innocent people. Current rules for public school transfer students interested in athletics do just this: they make rule-breakers out of honest people who want nothing more than to determine their own scholastic futures."
Thompson countered that the open enrollment discussions and law specifically made an exception for athletic transfers. State law states those are to be handled by the State School Board and UHSAA.
That same audit also said athletic transfers were not statistically significant, and that more students were at out-of-boundary schools for academic reasons than were participating in sports.The bill now goes to the Senate Floor for debate.