sportsvirtual children by Scott Warnock

No private school leagues? NJ Ed Commish might have missed an opportunity

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I challenge you to a football game. Here are my rules: You have to pick eleven players from your block. I can pick anyone (including, if I like, a player on your block). Let’s go!

A couple months ago, New Jersey State Commissioner of Education David Hespe reversed a pair of votes by members of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) requesting that football and wrestling be separated into private and public leagues/divisions. With this ruling, the commish might have missed an opportunity.

As a commissioner is allowed to do, he overruled his constituents, even though the majority (a little less than 2 to 1) was strong in both votes. Hespe said in his explanation, “The NJSIAA argues that many non-public schools have used their expansive attendance zones and fundraising ability to create elite programs that make them uncompetitive with virtually all public schools in their region.” But he vetoed this argument primarily based on earlier Commissioner of Ed rulings, some as far back as 1982, about “equal athletic opportunity for non-public school students” and similar reasoning/language.

This talk of “equal opportunity” is puzzling, though, because as the NJSIAA members indicated, the situation is by nature unequal. It’s already imbalanced — by the choice of those attending private schools.

Why do I say Hespe missed an opportunity? Because since educational testing has ramped up — and it has a bit since, uh, 1982 — our education system is rife with imbalances, and not just in sports. Rich, well-prepared students who would succeed anywhere end up at St. Hyperdrive High School. The outcomes/output of St. Hyberdrive are covered by a shamelessly uncritical educational media — with the fat king of it all, U.S. News, sitting at the top — as if you can reasonably compare St. Hyperdrive and its privileged constituents to the little public school down the road.

I suppose we all use this “ignore input/glorify output” mode at times. It does make life easier, especially in sports. We blinker our view of sporting events as if the event on the field is all there is. Once the whistle blows, we settle in and the accumulation of events that led to the game evaporates.

But those events are still there, whether we (choose to) perceive them or not. In high schools, core inequalities exist in the ways public and private populate their schools. Private schools can capitalize and sometimes exploit this constituency imbalance to their athletic advantage. Many such schools, to their credit, don’t. But when they want to, the structure allows it. These schools can pluck kids from anywhere and create a lot of nice box scores in the paper, and box scores are so neat and clean!

The box score mentality goes well beyond sports now. PARCC, SAT, graduation rates — more box scores: There’s your score. There’s your school’s score. Neat. Clean. This is not what education is, though, and education decision-makers should know better.

The commentary following articles about this topic reveal that people are angry and polarized. Some claim that not just private schools recruit. True enough. Public schools can also recruit, albeit illegally. Magnet schools can, by definition, attract students across district boundaries. There are indeed other ways to stack the deck.

But the NJSIAA wasn’t banning all private vs. public contests. Its members wanted to eliminate mandatory conference contests between these unequal schools. Colleges are getting wise to the issue of “guarantee games,” including the physical risks of such contests. If a college AD chooses to have her little school get a big payday by getting destroyed — hopefully, just in the box score — by some big Southern school, that’s on her. But such contests shouldn’t be required.

With a deeper, more critical eye on overall equity in his ruling, Hespe might have opened up a broader conversation about education. Kids aren’t relegated or condemned to private schools. They (well, more specifically, their parents) choose that path. Fine. But after choosing a situation that is inherently unbalanced, they certainly don’t need mandatory, high-level protection of that choice.

Hespe did, in his ruling, “direct NJSIAA to conduct a study of these issues as soon as practicable.” While that study’s going on, I challenge him to a little pick-up football game. My rules.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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3 Responses to “No private school leagues? NJ Ed Commish might have missed an opportunity”

  1. Feels like a macro aggression.

  2. A small example of the breeding of entitlement?

  3. Once again, Mr Warnock, you do not fail to disappoint in your unwavering defense of the lowly public school. However, and without specific example, I would offer that many public schools, in various existing leagues, often defeat the hallowed private institutions. Size matters – the enrollment of your school, public or private. A Palmyra HS, for example, does not have the geographic reach of a Lenape or a Willingboro, or a Holy Cross. The schools are grouped by size because a greater population from which to draw will usually lead to a higher probability of drawing gifted athletes – and gifted students. PA has private school leagues. But that is as much for geography as competition. Here too many public schools win the battles over the private schools on the various battlefields – including, sometimes, test scores. (Say it ain’t so!) There are many reasons “parents” – and actually, once in a great while, the student! – choose to go to a private school. These can include academics and sports, but also the various programs being offered, the student body, the location, staff competency, family history, etc.
    To constantly, and repeatedly, defend and bemoan the poor public school versus the private school becomes tiresome and actually a bit whiny. For separate sport leagues to be the issue de jure is troubling simply by the fact that there are so many greater issues with education in NJ and elsewhere. Maybe next time you would like to (yawn) make another defense of public schools, simply ask a teacher what keeps them up at night. Guaranteed it is not sports leagues.

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