The Senate Education committee reheard Senate Bill 53 on Friday and voted to let it be heard on the Senate floor next week.
If approved, SB 53, which is sponsored by Senator Mark Madsen, R-Tooele, will allow students to transfer from one high school to another freely without losing athletic eligibility and therefore replace the high school transfer rule currently in place by the Utah High School Activities Association.
The current rule states that, after first entry into a high school —which is measured by either attending a high school or trying out for a high school athletic team, whichever comes first — students who transfer to another school are automatically deemed athletically ineligible for a calendar year. Students can apply for the ineligibility to be waived in cases such as a full family move, a divorce, or a court-ordered change of residence. Students also have the option to apply for a hardship waiver, which would be relevant when there is an unavoidable circumstance that forces the change in school.
If the UHSAA denies the request for a waiver, that decision can be appealed to be reviewed by a panel of members from the Board of Trustees and Executive Committee.
This policy was put into effect last September after a year and a half of study and debate concerning athletic recruiting at the high school level.
The Board of Trustees adopted the rule in the spring of 2010 and then member districts, charter and private schools also had a chance to vote, passing it with a vote of 116-16.
Under Madsen's proposed bill, "it creates a window — December 1 to June 30 — during which, if a transfer is approved —meaning, there is room for the student at the receiving school — regardless of the reason of transfer, the student would be eligible to participate in all activities the following year," said UHSAA director Bart Thompson.
While the bill does include the provision that a student who has been recruited for athletic purposes will be prohibited from participating, Thompson says that's extremely difficult to prove. This is because the UHSAA relies on testimony in investigations, as it does not have subpoena power, and those who are recruited probably aren't going to admit to it when their eligibility is in jeopardy.
"A big part of our transfer rule as it stands now is to be a disincentive to recruiting. You can recruit but if they come, they're ineligible for a year anyway when they can't demonstrate there is a legitimate hardship or a move," Thompson said. "This bill will promote that (recruiting) incredibly."
The bill has been amended since it first appeared on the scene, restricting students to just one free pass to another school. However, that statement is misleading.
"Let's say a kid enrolls at an out-of-boundary school on their initial enrollment, then they use their one free pass under the bill to go to another out-of-boundary school, and then the bill includes a free pass to come back to their home boundary school," Thompson explained. "They could be at three schools in three years under the bill."
During the creation of the current rule, the UHSAA made sure to adhere to open enrollment laws. As it stands, a student can choose to attend any high school on their first entry as long as there is room for them.
"We've done this recognizing law of the land, which is school choice," Thompson said, adding that there are still problems because recruiting has moved to the middle school level.
The biggest fear for the UHSAA is what this bill will do to athletic programs at high schools throughout the state.
If transfers are not monitored, as SB 53 suggests, "we see it moving toward the establishment of a number of elite programs," Thompson said. "Others will be left behind, will have no chance to compete, and we're afraid we're going to see a number of those programs dropped and reduce opportunity for all students."
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He added that the role of the UHSAA, and the reason for its recent transfer rule, is to assure all students a chance to participate in activities while in high school.
"We are about participation and providing as many opportunities for as many kids as we possibly can. We want every school to have a full program," he said. "What we're there for is to protect opportunity for kids. That's our focus. We're not just looking at the immediate kids, we're looking at all kids across that state and down the road as well."