Public and private schools could soon be separated

The Pennsylvania high school sports world that has existed since 1972 could soon be changed forever.

If legislation introduced by Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R-Beaver/Butler/Lawrence) last Tuesday soon passes, public and private schools will compete in separate state tournament brackets. If the Parity in Interscholastic Athletics Act passes, the public and private school state champions would then meet for an overall championship. The changes would impact the following sports: football, baseball, softball, girls’ and boys’ basketball, girls’ volleyball, and girls’ and boys’ soccer.

In an interview with the Sun-Gazette Thursday afternoon, Bernstine explained the motivation for the legislation that he and his colleagues have been working on for the past year. He also explained what he hopes the potential new law will do for high school athletics and student-athletes moving forward. In addition, he responded to concerns others have stated.

“The ultimate goal is not just about having two separate tournaments. It’s about the entire piece of legislation together and creating an environment where students have the opportunity to flourish in the fields of athletics and academics,” Bernstine said. “Creating those opportunities and ensuring that students are not shut out of those opportunities is important for individuals across the commonwealth, not only today but for generations to come.”

While the creation of separate state tournaments has produced the most attention, there are several other changes the legislation would create. It would eliminate the transfer rule, making a student immediately eligible to compete after transferring schools if he or she meets all other eligibility guidelines. In-season transfer eligibility would only be granted for extenuating circumstances.

The legislation also would create fairness in the PIAA’s district committees to ensure each district accurately reflects the composition of schools in that district. Currently, public schools compromise 83% of the PIAA’s schools but the public schools had been underrepresented on those committees.

While the above sports are the ones impacted by the new legislation, separate tournaments will be created for additional team sports if there are at least 50 public schools and 50 nonpublic schools competing in that sport.

Lastly, a team would be disqualified for the PIAA playoffs if it forfeits two or more regular-season games in one season.

Bernstine said he is hopeful the legislation will come up for vote in the near future. If the bill passes it would be implemented within 60 days of being signed into law.

The PIAA disagrees with the proposed changes, issuing a statement last Tuesday.

“This proposal of having 18% of private schools being guaranteed 50% of the championship entries promotes inequities in postseason opportunities. Extending sports seasons to host an additional tournament of champions between private and public schools serves no educational purpose. This would cause scheduling issues, would be detrimental to the health and safety of student-athletes and their possible participation in subsequent sport seasons.”

Bernstine and his colleagues disagree. He has heard concerns about the current system for years and played basketball for 2003 Class A Western Region champion Union, a team which lost to basketball factory Scotland in the state final. He and others believed it was time to make a change and are confident their bill will create a more level playing field. Bernstine admits the bill is not perfect, but that something needed to be done.

This was a matter of bringing two sides adamant in their positions together. It also was a bipartisan effort and one Bernstine believes will come to fruition because of the broad support it could be building.

“We started having initial conversations with the Pennsylvania Parental Equity group and the Pennsylvania Catholic Alliance a year ago. The initial conversation was everyone sitting down and seeing what are the issues important with each group, where are students were being harmed and where we may be able to help?” Bernstine said. “From the very beginning everyone focused 100% on the students and that was what was really great. What we did was work through the variety of issues and, ultimately, each side that was involved gained some things and each side has lost some things.

“Is this how I would do it if I was king? The answer is no, but it’s also important to get something passed to help student athletes. This is something because of the negotiations that we can get done. If nothing happens we’re going to be in the same situation as the last 47 years. Nothing is an option, but if we do nothing there is no gain for students.”

Aside from separate tournaments, the most controversial part of the bill appears to concern the transfer eligibility rule. Some are concerned that eliminating the transfer rules for athletic reasons might create a wild west system in which athletes transfer at more rapid rates in the past. Some worry that by eliminating those rules, perennial powerhouses could become even stronger and that other schools quickly could assemble all-star team-like rosters and build dynasties.

Bernstine said he understands those concerns, but that he has studied the transfer rules in the 49 other states. He is optimistic the doomsday scenario some predict will not happen.

“With regard to the transfer rules, No. 1, they are inconsistently applied. No. 2, regardless of what exists with the transfer rules, they are consistently manipulated,” Bernstine said. “I have not seen in the other states I’ve studied that (schools fielding dominant teams based on transfers) happening. I don’t want to continue to punish students for the rogue action of adults.”

Another primary concern centers on the charter schools. Charter schools like Imhotep, Constitution, Math, Civics and Sciences and Sankofa Academy have dominated the basketball scene over the last decade. However, those are inherently public schools and, therefore, cannot be moved into the private classification. That means public schools still could face the similar roadblocks in basketball and in football (with Imhotep becoming a perennial power) that they do now.

Data Bernstine has collected, though, shows that the charters are not as dominant across the athletic scope as some perceive. Of the sports included in the legislation charter schools during the 2018-19 school year comprised 4.2 percent of the state’s Final 4 football teams, 16.7% of the boys basketball teams and zero in the other sports.

“We look at charters and privates and evaluated the data. The misconception is that charter schools dominate and the data says otherwise. No doubt, there are some that are dominant, but across the board the data says significantly different things and we have to rely on facts and not feelings when putting together legislation,” Bernstine said. “The second thing is we understand that if we were to put charter schools in this (private bracket) what you’re talking about is opening up the entire education code to change what a public school means in order to change Pennsylvania Athletics. That’s not reasonable and that’s not actually going to happen.”

Ultimately, Bernstine knows skeptics will remain. He also is confident that if passed, this bill will solve many existing problems with Pennsylvania high school athletics. Many others hope he is right.

“There are naysayers, but a vast majority of people reaching out have been saying positive things. We did the groundwork, we did the homework. If the privates are not totally happy and the publics are not totally happy then we’ve probably reached a compromise because some got what they wanted and some didn’t get what they wanted,” Bernstine said. “It’s about putting students first. It’s something we can work on and continue to mold and make sure we’re happy with it. The focus is on the students and the student athletes to give them the best opportunity for success and to go and live their lives and learn from the extracurricular activities that they had an opportunity to participate in.”