Better behavior, not better laws needed

Posted: April 19, 2014

New Jersey Assemblyman John Burzichelli says he might introduce a law to change the school-choice program to help "level the playing field" in high school sports.

NJSIAA executive director Steve Timko says his organization is on board with the politician's efforts to stop the creation of "super teams."

We don't need better laws.

We need better behavior.

Burzichelli and Timko can get together and write a new law or come up with an amendment to the existing legislation or work with New Jersey's acting commissioner of education, David Hespe, to try to stop some unscrupulous school officials from exploiting the system in shortsighted pursuit of championship jackets.

They can't regulate ethics.

And that's really the heart of the matter Burzichelli dragged into the light on Tuesday with his announcement that he plans to tackle this school-choice situation before Paulsboro loses another state championship in wrestling.

OK, OK. Burzichelli, the former mayor of Paulsboro and lifelong resident of the town, didn't exactly say he was motivated by the fact that his beloved Red Raiders had won 25 of 26 state titles in Group 1 before Bound Brook built a powerhouse program through creative use of the school-choice option.

But he did note that media reports of Bound Brook's success - which includes the last three Group 1 state championships, capped by a 46-16 victory over Paulsboro in the title match in February - piqued his interest in the Crusaders' transparent gaming of the system.

"Bound Brook is heavily laden with school-choice kids," Burzichelli said of a team that reportedly had eight starters from outside its district.

The problem with Burzichelli's proposed legislation, which would required school-choice students to play sports for their sending district, is that it's likely a logistical nightmare that would punish most students enrolled in the increasingly popular program.

How are students in a choice school supposed to get back to their sending school in time to make practices and games? What if the choice school operates on a different schedule or has a dismissal time that's 15 minutes later?

Most choice students - and there are more than 6,000 in grades K-12 - based their decision on factors such as academics, atmosphere, and school size, not athletics.

That's the whole purpose of the system: to allow parents and students to "choose" a better situation for them.

But they shouldn't be forced to make the decision knowing the only way they can include athletics as part of their educational experience - and that's the idea of scholastic sports, right? - is by rushing back to their home district at the sound of the dismissal bell to play with students and for coaches they opted to leave.

That doesn't mean Burzichelli is out of bounds in expressing concerns about this situation. Bound Brook wrestling might be an extreme example that happens to compete in the same group as Paulsboro, but the truth is that the school-choice program has tilted the playing field in a lot of groups in a lot of sports.

The problem is drawing the line. Let's say that Bound Brook crossed it with eight starters who were school-choice students. Would four be OK? How about one?

And are school-choice students who make an impact in public-school sports different from tuition students who make an impact in public-school sports? What about the hundreds of athletes who attend a school outside their district because their parents signed over guardianship to a relative in a different district?

Athletes have been finding their way to top programs for years. But for kids who have been raised in an AAU culture - and, perhaps more significantly, for their parents - seeking a "better" situation is business as usual.

Changing the rules of school choice won't alter that. And it will create unfair hardship for the students who take advantage of a program that, by its very nature, is designed to encourage pursuit of an improved educational setting.

There's no fixing the larger issue here - the increasing impact of student athletes from outside districts on public-school sports - with more rules and regulations.

The solution is simple.

This is still school sports, not travel ball.

Superintendents, athletic directors, and coaches still have the power to control these situations.

All they need to do is the right thing.

They shouldn't need legislative restrictions or tightening of legal loopholes to protect themselves from their hypercompetitive urges or from the manipulative actions of overzealous parents.

They just need to remember what they've been telling children in their district since they were in kindergarten.

Play fair.


panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

www.inquirer.com/jerseysidesports

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