SALT LAKE CITY — A new transfer rule being considered by the Utah High School Activities Association came under fire during a legislative interim committee meeting Wednesday afternoon.
The association's staff and executive committee chairman Craig Hammer presented the new rule and the rationale for it to the Legislature's Education Standing Committee.
Before the association officials were finished giving the history of the change, which has been several years in the making, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, suggested that coaches would be in favor of the rule because they would want to reduce competition.
"They would essentially be captive of the coaches," said Stephenson, referring to the fact that eligibility is established when a student attends a school or if they try out for a team, even if they don't make it.
His comments came after officials said the rule was approved 114-14 by the association's membership. The rule still has to be adopted by the association's Board of Trustees, which could happen in June.
Mark Van Wagoner, the association's legal counsel, said this rule essentially gets rid of that possibility because it takes the coach, athletic director and principals out of the equation.
"Those days are gone," Van Wagoner said. "This rule gets rid of every conceivable nefarious conduct possible. Parents can choose to go where ever they want, and we hope they choose carefully, because you can't rely on others to deal with the situation for them."
There are exceptions to the rule, but the responsibility is on the student's family to ask for a hardship hearing and prove they meet the requirements.
"If they do qualify for hardship, it's up to the parents and students to present that," he said. "There will be no more interference from coaches or anyone else."
But some legislators thought the exceptions were too narrow and that asking parents to prove they'd moved, divorced or suffered a death in the family was too burdensome.
"Your definition of a hardship is a little disturbing," said Rep. Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, pointing out that it says changes in residence that can't be foreseen. "I don't like that you've changed this from innocent until proven guilty to guilty until proven innocent. It feels wrong to place that burden on the student."
Matthew Piccolo, a policy analyst from the Sutherland Institute, said they've also studied the issue and believe the new rule is too burdensome for parents.
"We feel a rule should do two main things: be consistent with Utah Open Enrollment laws and also empower parents to direct the education of their children," he said. "Both the old and new rules conflict with both of these ideas."
He said they are based on "the inherent mistrust of parents."
"We believe in trusting parents," he said. "We believe they're going to make the best decisions for their children."
Earlier in the hearing, association officials offered a number of examples of how the old rule has been thwarted by parents who wanted to move their children for athletic reasons.
One parent rented a condo in St. George so two teens could play volleyball at a Washington County school. The girls lived there alone, said Hammer, and as soon as the season ended, they went home to Salt Lake City.
In another instance, a parent told hearing officials that the family was moving. They later found out he was still an LDS bishop of the ward in the home school's boundaries.
Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, suggested the committee study the issue and draft legislation that would address the problem.
"If there is a divorce that occurs, that's none of your business," Wimmer said. "I find this to be an extremely draconian rule. None of those (exceptions) are any of your business."
Larry Shumway, superintendent of the State Board of Education, cautioned the committee about relying on a few anecdotes instead of those who've worked on the issue for decades.
He also suggested that the role of high school sports has changed from a time when kids felt a loyalty to a certain community and school.
"Who would think that someone who went to West would ever consider playing for East?" Shumway said. "The stakes have become so much higher. The original purposes of it have been lost. Be careful in substituting your judgment for the judgment of these people. They deal with this day in and day out, and they've sat through these hearings. I just want to sound a cautionary note."
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