Officials with the Minnesota High School League say some high school students are abusing the state's open enrollment system by transferring schools just to play sports on a better team. Rep. Deb Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, says while there may be a few glaring examples of that, the League's new rule takes aim at the wrong target.
"Some coaches are recruiting kids to play for high-powered teams, and the High School League cannot prove that they are doing them. Because they have been unable to punish any coach in the last five years, they have decided to take to punishing children," she said.
Hilstrom's bill would allow students who transfer schools to fully participate in all extracurricular activities.
Supporters of Hilstrom's bill say the League is using a broad brush to deal with a relatively small problem. More than 14,000 Minnesota high school students transferred schools under open enrollment in the last school year. Only 765 of them applied to participate in high school league sports and other activities such as debate and drama.
Minneapolis parent Kate Towle says her ninth-grade daughter transferred from a St. Paul charter school to South High in Minneapolis, where she's on the varsity swim team. Towle says her daughter transfered for a number of reasons, not just sports, and forcing her to sit out a year of swimming would have been traumatic for her.
"Coaches and professionals are free to move from their posts, they're free to move as they need to. Why would students be treated as school property, and unable to move without a penalty?"
The High School League's new rule wouldn't apply if a student's family moves into a new district, or if a court orders a transfer. The league's representative council voted 48 to 0 for the new rule last week, and league officials say schools overwhelmingly support it. The league is a private non-profit that doesn't get any state money, but is funded by dues from participating schools.
Rep. Bud Heidgerken, R-Freeport, a former teacher and coach, says the League should be allowed to make the final decision on the transfer issue. He says the League is trying to solve a serious problem.
"I see these kids come up. And they're all fighting for a slot, and eventually they get to be sophomores or juniors, they finally get to start. All of a sudden, somebody transfers in and takes their spot out. That's devastating," he says.
Heidgerken voted against Hilstrom's bill, but it narrowly cleared an education subcommittee by a party-line vote of three-to-two.
The bill now moves to the full K-12 finance committee, where it has the support of committee chair Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville.
Greiling has questioned past league decisions, and during the subcommitte hearing, she questioned another new league rule. When determining school classification, the league now subtracts 40 percent of the number of students who receive free and reduced lunch from a school's enrollment. Greiling says lawmakers have heard from coaches like Chuck Thompson who think the policy amounts to economic discrimination. Thompson is the boys basketball coach for Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa High School.
"I don't think any kid should count as a .6 based on economic standing. I think it's my job as a coach, or if I'm a leader of any extracurricular activity, to get kids out and involved and it shouldn't matter what their financial situation is," he said.
Thompson says coaches he's talked to think the policy is a dumb idea, but he's not optimistic the league will change its mind. The league's executive director, Dave Stead, says the reason for the policy is that a league committee found students who don't qualify for free and reduced lunch are more likely to participate in sports than low-income students.
"It has nothing to do with discriminating against free and reduced lunch people at all. It simply speaks to the number of people, historically statewide, who participate at that level."
Stead says the policy should more accurately reflect the pool of student athletes a school can draw from, and allow them to compete against other schools with similar numbers. There's no precedent for the league policy when it comes to education funding. To the contrary, the state gives schools more money based on the number of low-income students they have.