HARRISBURG - Proposed legislation that would create separate public and private state tournaments and bring other sweeping changes to high school athletics in Pennsylvania was introduced Tuesday.
Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R-Beaver/Butler/Lawrence) unveiled the Parity in Interscholastic Athletics Act (House Bill 1600) at a press conference in the State Capitol Building.
The bill, if it becomes law, would blow up the current format and structure of state playoffs in eight sports, eliminate a transfer rule installed by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association to address competitive balance, and possibly rework the structure of the PIAA itself, among other reforms.
“Both public and private school leaders sat down in a non-adversarial setting and worked hard to resolve these challenges and understand each other’s goals,” Rep. Bernstine said.
“At the end of the day, everyone was focused on making sure the end result was in the best interest of Pennsylvania students both athletically and academically.”
Joining Bernstine at the press conference were representatives of the parties that negotiated the bill's content: Eric Failing, executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference; and Leonard Rich and William Hall, co-coordinators of the Pennsylvania Athletic Equity Steering Committee.
Those parties did not include the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, according to its executive director.
"We weren't involved in this at all,’’ Dr. Robert Lombardi said by telephone Tuesday. “There's an awful lot there that I believe oversteps the role of government. ... I think it is quite a reach.''
The bill, if passed into law, would mean all public schools (including charter schools) would compete in one state-tournament bracket and all private schools would compete in a separate bracket in football, boys’ and girls’ basketball, boys’ and girls’ soccer, baseball, softball and girls’ (but not boys’) volleyball.
The law would allow for creating separate playoffs in other sports in the future, provided there are at least 50 public and 50 private schools playing the sport. Only 15 private schools in the state currently field boys’ volleyball teams.
The respective public and private state champions would then compete in an extra game for an overall state championship.
In past discussion of separate playoffs, charter schools had been included with private schools in a “boundary or non-boundary,” model.
“By law they have to be included (with publics),’’ said Rich. “According to the school code, they are public schools.’’
In the past, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference had been vehemently opposed to separate playoffs.
Failing, in his first year as Executive Director, admitted, “the Bishops (of the conference) were very, very clear. They didn’t want to be left out of any issue, … (they said) go out and find common ground.
“I realize many people are apprehensive about change, but it appeared that change was inevitable. This legislation will offer Catholic schools several advantages and protections.”
The law would also eliminate the PIAA’s transfer rule, installed by PIAA last year to address the competitive balance issues at the core of the debate on reform. Students would be immediately eligible to play sports after transferring schools, as long as they meet other eligibility standards.
The law does allow PIAA to restrict transfers that occur after 50 percent of a sport’s regular season games have been played.
“We’re happy that we have secured change on what had been very restrictive transfer rules,” Failing said.
The bill would make ineligible for state playoffs a team that forfeited two or more regular-season games in a season. That change is “to prevent schools from being intentionally disregarded.’’
The bill would also forbid the forming of a league that excludes private schools, and forbids PIAA member schools from refusing to schedule games with private member schools.
Despite the fact that roughly 90 percent of PIAA membership is public/charter schools the bill says, “There shall be an equal number of public and nonpublic schools in each interdistrict playoff system.’’
In addition to the PIAA, parties not represented at the press conference Tuesday included the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Public Schools and the state General Assembly’s Athletic Oversight Committee