Why some want PIAA to separate private and public schools in playoffs • Pennsylvania Capital-Star

The law is one sentence long: “Private schools shall be permitted, if otherwise qualified, to be members of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.”

Despite its brevity, the law known as Act 219 has been subject to years of scrutiny from Pennsylvania athletic professionals and legislators alike, and state Rep. Scott Conklin (D-Centre) has placed himself in the middle of the latest fight.

“There’s an unfair discrepancy here,” Conklin said of the gulf between the athletic success of public and non-public schools.

Conklin and critics of the current state of play claim that non-public schools — private, charter and parochial schools — have a competitive edge over public schools because their athlete pools are not confined to school district borders. The discrepancy is especially prevalent in playoff and championship games, which they say necessitates the separation of public and non-public schools beginning at the playoff level.

Non-public schools comprise 24% of the high schools in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, or PIAA, but account for a disproportionate amount of state champions in most common sports over the past decade, according to an analysis by the Capital-Star. Half of wrestling state championships, 55% of girls golf state championships, 59% of girls basketball state championships and 67% of boys basketball state championships have been won by non-public schools since 2013.

Data provided by the PIAA covering state championship wins from 1972 to 2018 showed a lesser win rate for non-public schools.

PIAA Data by PennCapitalStar on Scribd

The PIAA has continually stated that it does not have the power to bifurcate public and non-public school competition, citing Act 219. The association’s leadership unanimously passed a motion in 2018 that stated that it, “at the recommendation of counsel, concludes and therefore reaffirms that the separation of playoffs with regard to public, charter and private schools is contrary to the publicly documented intent of Act 219 of 1972.”

Lyndsay Barna, the PIAA assistant executive director, cited the original language of the law, which authorized “private schools to participate with public schools in post-season athletic events,” as evidence of intent.

Conklin’s “position is not consistent with the intent as discussed above and is factually incorrect,” Barna wrote in an email. She added that if the law were to change, “PIAA will comply with the law.”

Conklin and other reform advocates contend that Act 219 is silent on the PIAA’s supposed inability to separate public and non-public schools. To clear up any confusion, Conklin introduced two pieces of legislation this year that would affirm the PIAA’s ability to establish separate playoffs and championships.

He has received backing from Democratic and Republican legislators alike.

“All that I want to do is have fairness,” Conklin said.

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Conklin, whose district includes some of Pennsylvania State University, used a hypothetical football matchup between Penn State and Harvard to explain that his plan, if enacted by the PIAA, would cause high school sports to play out more like college sports: competition during the regular season that is not held against a team’s in-conference record.

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

Eight states hold separate playoffs for public and non-public schools, according to data compiled and provided by Marlene Wilson, a researcher in Conklin’s office.

Gary Niels, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, an accreditation group for religious and private schools, wrote in an email that his organization “questions how much research has gone into this bill.”

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

Conklin’s proposals would leave the choice to separate playoffs and championships up to the PIAA. State Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R-Lawrence) proposed a bill in 2019 that would have mandated the PIAA hold separate playoffs for public and non-public schools in certain sports.

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

Bernstine’s bill died in committee, in part, he said, because public schools “said it’s not enough.”

‘We don’t have that capability’

The Berlin Brothersvalley High School seniors bore witness to the same story time and time again. Each basketball season since 2021, the Mountaineers would achieve perfect runs against District 5 opponents during the regular season with few errors out of conference, then fall to a Christian school in the postseason, including three state final losses.

(Getty Images)

“We don’t want to cry over spilled milk,” said Doug Paul, the Berlin athletic director. “At the same time, we do have a pretty bad taste in our mouth because we had that once-in-a-lifetime group of kids coming through that lost three championships to private schools, and we may never get that opportunity again.”

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

Berlin, with 125 total students, plays in 1A. The opponent that bested Berlin during the 1A state finals for the past two years, Imani Christian Academy, elected to move up to 6A for the 2024-2025 season.

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

“You see these schools just keep reloading year after year, and, you know, they’re sending three, four kids off to Division I colleges,” Paul said. “Obviously, if you’re a good player, you want to be a part of that, so they’re moving into those districts and we don’t have that capability at a small rural public high school.”

The 2024 1A boys basketball championship teams were roughly evenly divided between public and non-public schools, mirroring the makeup of teams registered to play 1A boys basketball in the regular season. Non-public schools, however, have won seven of the past 10 state finals, a trend not limited to basketball.

Jody Karam, the wrestling coach for the Easton Red Rovers, likened competition between public and non-public schools to that between apples and oranges.

“They’re getting their oranges from Florida,” Karam said of the non-public teams. Easton was drubbed in the wrestling state finals this year by nearby Bethlehem Catholic, the perennial state champion.

Another public school in the Lehigh Valley, Nazareth Area High School, faced a rout last season to a recurrent state champion, St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, in the 6A football state finals. The 59-21 loss was referred to by The Morning Call as “expected” and the Easton Express-Times as “another District 11 sacrifice to St. Joseph’s Prep buzzsaw.”

“On the issue of boundaries, the geographic makeup of our sports teams is the same makeup of our student body, as it has been for many years, since well before we were invited to join the PIAA,” St. Joseph’s communications director, Bill Avington, wrote in an email. “We continue to play by the rules that are set by our league and the PIAA.”



Originally published at penncapital-star.com,by Trebor Maitin

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