Charter schools such as Lincoln Park could be in trouble athletically if the PIAA forces top players like Elijah Minnie to compete for their home public school districts.
By Mike White / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bob Lombardi has nothing against charter schools, but as the executive director of the PIAA, he says his job is to be the voice of many schools around the commonwealth of Pennsylvania that are screaming foul against the charter school effect on athletics, particularly basketball.
"There are loud and clear complaints from our membership," Lombardi said.
That's why Lombardi is pushing an idea that would effectively eliminate sports at charter schools.
"We have asked at our annual meetings [with school representatives] if there are any issues," Lombardi said. "They say, 'Yes, charter schools.' Our schools are not happy."
In the past few weeks, Lombardi has met twice with the PIAA Legislative Oversight Committee in the Legislature and asked the committee to craft a proposal that would force charter-school students to play sports for the public school district in which they live, and not the charter school.
Lombardi said such a rule can't be enacted by the PIAA. It must come from the Legislature because it makes rules for charter schools.
Over the next few weeks, Lombardi will travel around the commonwealth and meet with athletic directors from different districts, giving updates on the charter school controversy and asking for input.
A charter school is publicly funded, but has no geographic boundaries as does a public school. When a student from a public school decides to attend a charter school, that student's public school district must pay the charter school a fee to educate that student. The fee is about $10,000 and can be as high as $20,000 if the student is deemed to need "special education."
A number of charter schools have opened in the past decade or so in Philadelphia, and some of those schools, although small, have started to have big impacts on high school basketball, especially in Class A and Class AA. In the past four years, eight teams from charter schools have made it to PIAA championship games.
In the WPIAL, there is only one charter school playing boys basketball, and that school has become a powerhouse. Lincoln Park won a PIAA championship in Class A this season after winning a WPIAL title for the second time in three years. This was the third time in four years that the Beaver County charter school played for a state title.
Critics of charter schools and their basketball success say the schools are getting many student-athletes who transfer for athletics. In Philadelphia, basketball players transferring to and from charter schools is common. But student-athlete transfers also are popular in parochial and public schools in the Philadelphia area. Under PIAA rules, a student transferring for athletic intent faces a one-year period of ineligibility.
But in Philadelphia (District 12), high school athletic officials routinely approve transfers, which makes other districts, including the WPIAL, wonder if everyone is playing by the same rules.
An example of the effect of transfers in Philadelphia is the basketball team at Philadelphia Electrical charter school. The team's top five players this season were transfers, and Electrical made it to the PIAA Class AAA semifinals.
The PIAA Class A championship was a matchup of two charter schools -- Math, Civics & Sciences of Philadelphia and Lincoln Park. The three top scorers for Math, Civics & Sciences were transfer students. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, eight of the top nine scorers among the top three Philadelphia Public League charter school teams this season transferred before or shortly after the school year began.
Two of Lincoln Park's top players -- Elijah Minnie and Ryan Skovranko -- were seniors who transferred to the school at some point after their freshman seasons. Skovranko played as a freshman at West Mifflin before transferring to Lincoln Park. Minnie played as a freshman at Monessen and at Summit Academy near Butler as a sophomore before transferring to Lincoln Park.
Next week, the WPIAL will have a hearing with Lincoln Park and Nick Aloi, a talented guard at Ellwood City who transferred to Lincoln Park in January. The league will decide whether to permit Aloi to play next year or rule him ineligible for a year, saying he transferred for athletic intent.
In the past 10 seasons, there have been 13 teams from charters schools that made it to PIAA boys basketball championship games. Except for Lincoln Park, they are all from the Philadelphia area. Overall, there were 30 charter schools playing basketball in District 12 this season. That is by far the most of any district in the state.
"Public schools feel like they are funding two athletic programs -- an elite program at a charter school and their own," Lombardi said.
The PIAA oversight committee told Lombardi to work with the charter schools and all schools in the commonwealth to come up with a possible solution.
Under Lombardi's idea, a student could go to a charter school but would have to play sports at his or her home school district. For example, Skovranko could have attended Lincoln Park, but would have had to play sports at West Mifflin.
At a number of charter schools, basketball is the only sport offered. The student could play basketball at his charter school, but other sports at his home district. That has happened. A few years ago, B.J. Lipke played basketball at Lincoln Park and football at Cornell, his home district.
"As of right now, there is no legislation or proposal on the table," Lombardi said. "I was in Philadelphia last week and I met with some groups involved in this and discussed ways to see if we can come up with some kind of solutions."
But at this time of year, charter schools are not the only hot topic on the high school landscape. The success of parochial and private schools in basketball has drawn the ire of many coaches, school officials and fans over the years. Like charter schools, parochial and private schools don't have geographic boundaries from which to draw students.
Philadelphia Archbishop Carroll, a perennial boys basketball powerhouse, had a number of transfers among their top players this year. Greensburg Central Catholic, a PIAA semifinalist from the WPIAL, had two key players who transferred to the school in the past few years.
For years, some have felt that parochial and private schools have an advantage and should play in their own leagues.
Of the PIAA's 761 member schools, 18 percent (140) are parochial or private schools. In boys basketball the past 10 seasons, 38 percent of the teams that played in a PIAA Class AA or A title game have been from parochial or private schools and another 28 percent from charter schools.
From 1976-85, only 35 percent of the PIAA finalists were from parochial or private schools (there were no charter schools then).
From 1976-85 in girls basketball, only 28 percent of the PIAA finalists were from parochial/private schools. In the past 10 seasons, 61 percent of the finalists were from parochial/private schools.
Parochial and private schools also are starting to impact football. From 1988, when the PIAA football championships started, through 2003, only 11 percent of the teams that made it to PIAA title games came from parochial/private schools.
In the past seven seasons, 39 percent of the PIAA football finalists have come from parochial and private schools. The addition of Philadelphia Catholic League schools into the PIAA in 2008 has affected those numbers.
But Lombardi said the complaints against parochial and private schools is a totally different issue from the complaints about charter schools and that the PIAA has no plans to address any concerns about parochial or private schools.
WPIAL officials believe many of the complaints about charter schools and parochial/private schools could be erased if the PIAA transfer rule was changed. It should be pointed out, though, that a number of transfers over the years involving two public schools also have been controversial.
A few years ago, the WPIAL crafted a new rule where a student would be permitted to play only on the junior varsity team for a year if the student transferred after ninth grade. Exceptions would be made if the transfer was for reasons such as a parent's job or the family relocating.
The WPIAL presented the rule to the PIAA, hoping it might get passed, but it went nowhere.
"I think the Catholic schools and the private schools are here to stay," said Tim O'Malley, executive director of the WPIAL. "At this point in time, I don't think you can segregate those schools. But we have advocated for years the very real need to have a much more restrictive, or constrictive, transfer rule -- and also to enforce the rule.
"People make the argument that this is America and you should have the right to move and go to the school of your choice. Well, you do have that right.
"But what are the reasons for your move? Or where do you really live? We have long been of the opinion that if a transfer made after the ninth grade begins to create a competitive imbalance in athletics, then the transfer rule needs to be more restrictive."
For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh.
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