Play-where-you-want bill debated

Published: Thursday, Feb. 21 2008 12:00 a.m. MST

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.

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