Leveling the playing field: Why some want the PIAA to separate private and public schools in the playoffs

The law consists of one sentence: “Private schools, if they meet other criteria, will be eligible to be members of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.”

Despite its brevity, the law known as Act 219 subjected to years observation in Pennsylvania track and field professionals AND legislators just as state Rep. Scott Conklin (D-Centre) found himself in the middle of the latest fight.

“There is an unfair disparity here,” Conklin said of the gap between public and private school athletic success.

Conklin and critics of the current state of affairs argue that nonpublic schools — private, charter and parochial schools — have a competitive advantage over public schools because their player pools are not restricted to school district boundaries. The discrepancy is especially noticeable in the playoff and championship games, which they say necessitates separating public and private schools starting at the playoff level.

Private schools include 24% of secondary schools in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), but they have been a disproportionate number of state champions in the most popular sports over the past decade, according to a Capital-Star analysis. Since 2013, half of the state wrestling championships, 55% of the girls’ golf state championships, 59% of the girls’ basketball state championships, and 67% of the boys’ basketball state championships have been won by nonpublic schools.

Data provided by the PIAA covering state championship wins from 1972 to 2018 showed a lower win rate for private schools.

Contrary to the claims of reform advocates such as Conklin, the PIAA has consistently stated that it does not have the authority to separate public and private school competitions, citing Act 219. Association leadership unanimously passed a 2018 motion that stated that “on the recommendation of the General Counsel, finds and therefore affirms that separating the playoffs with respect to public, charter and private schools is contrary to the publicly documented intent of Act No. 219 of 1972.”

Lyndsay Barna, deputy executive director of the PIAA, cited the bill’s original language that allowed “private schools to participate with public schools in offseason athletic events” as evidence of the intent.

“Conklin’s position is not consistent with the intentions discussed above and is factually incorrect,” Barna wrote in an email. She added that if the law changes, “PIAA will follow the law.”

Conklin and other reform advocates say Act 219 is mute on PIAA’s alleged inability to separate public and nonpublic schools. To clear up any confusion, Conklin provided two excerpts legislation this year yes confirm the PIAA’s ability to establish separate playoffs and championships.

He received support from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

“I just want to keep it fair,” Conklin said.

Conklin, whose district includes part of Pennsylvania State University, used a hypothetical Penn State-Harvard football game to explain that his plan, if passed by the PIAA, would make high school sports resemble college sports: competition during the regular season , which is not played against the team’s conference record.

“Penn State could play Harvard within a year,” he said, adding that while Harvard could “very well win” the Ivy League, “they would never play Alabama for the national title because they are Power Five schools,” the collective with the most elite college football programs in the United States.

According to data collected and provided by Marlene Wilson, a researcher in Conklin’s office, eight states hold separate playoffs for public and private schools.

Gary Niels, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, a group that accredits religious and private schools, wrote in an email that his organization “questions the amount of research on this bill.”

“It has been reported that in neighboring states such as Maryland, which took similar actions, the effect was the opposite of what was intended,” he wrote. “In other words, the division of athletic competition into private and public actually resulted in more athletes leaving public schools to compete at private schools.”

Conklin’s proposals would leave the choice to separate the playoffs and PIAA championships. State Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R-Lawrence) proposed a bill in 2019 providing that he would have a mandate The PIAA holds separate playoffs for public and private schools in certain sports.

“My experience and the experience of many others in dealing with PIAA is that PIAA will continue to look out for its own interests, not those of students,” Bernstine told the Capital-Star. “Giving them the ability to act has never been helpful.”

He said Bernstine’s bill died in committee in part because public schools “decided it wasn’t enough.”

“We don’t have such opportunities”

The same story was witnessed by high school seniors in Berlin Brothersvalley over and over. Every basketball season since 2021, the Mountaineers have posted excellent performances against District 5 opponents in the regular season, with a few non-conference miscues, and then dropped to Christian School in the postseason, including three losses in the state finals.

(Getty Images)

“We don’t want to cry over spilled milk,” said Doug Paul, Berlin’s sports director. “At the same time, we’re in pretty bad taste because we had this once-in-a-lifetime group of kids that lost three championships to private schools and we may never get that chance again.”

The PIAA divides sports into categories based on records. Basketball has six divisions, with the smallest schools playing in 1A and the largest and often most competitive in 6A.

Berlin, with a total of 125 students, plays in 1A. The opponent that had defeated Berlin in the 1A state finals the past two years, Imani Christian Academy, was selected to go to 6A for the 2024-2025 season.

Boys’ basketball is one of two sports (the other is co-op football) offered by Imani Christian Academy, enrollment 40.

“What you see is that these schools just add to their offerings year after year and, you know, send three or four kids to Division I colleges,” Paul said. “Obviously, if you’re a good player, you want to be a part of it, so they move into these neighborhoods, and we don’t have those opportunities at a small rural public high school.”

The 2024 Class 1A boys basketball championship teams were split approximately evenly between public and private schools, reflecting the makeup of teams registered to play 1A boys basketball during the regular season. However, non-public schools have won seven of the last ten state finals, and this trend is not restricted to basketball.

Jody Karam, wrestling coach for the Easton Red Rovers, compared the rivalry between public and private schools to an apples-and-oranges competition.

“They buy their oranges from Florida,” Karam said of non-public teams. Easton was intoxicated In wrestling state finals this year by nearby Bethlehem Catholic, the eternal state champion.

Another public school in the Lehigh Valley, Nazareth Area High School, lost in the 6A state football finals last season to repeat state champion St. Joseph’s Preparatory School. He commented on the 59-21 loss, among others: Morning call in line with “expectations” and Easton Express-Times as “District 11’s next victim to the St. Sawblade.” Joseph’s Prep.”

“When it comes to boundaries, the geographic makeup of our sports teams is the same as that of our student athletes, as it has been for many years, long before we were invited to join the PIAA,” St. James Communications Director Joseph, Bill Avington, wrote in an email. “We still play by the rules set by our league and the PIAA.”

Update: This article was updated at 8:45 a.m. on May 30, 2024 to clarify PIAA’s position on Bill 219.

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