TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers last week battled over a pair of proposals that would make sweeping changes to the Florida High School Athletic Association, which has governed public and private school sports for nearly a century.
The most dramatic — allowing private and charter schools to have their own independent athletic league — could open the door for charter schools to break away from public schools and pursue top high school athletes.
The other proposed legislation would impose new regulations on FHSAA investigations and enable children who transfer from public to private schools to participate in athletic programs.
Both bills passed through their respective committees, thanks largely to support from Republican lawmakers. But not without stirring plenty of controversy.
A growing number of school administrators and athletic directors have decried the proposals as unfair to student athletes at traditional public schools. And other critics view the proposals as a strategy to bolster the state’s network of charter schools, which are funded by tax dollars, but run by independent governing boards.
“It’s always been my impression that charter schools are public schools,” said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. “So all of a sudden, charter schools can be in a private-school organization?”
Under Florida law, the FHSAA is the only body that can oversee high school athletics. The non-profit organization is made up of 463 public school and 227 private schools, and directs statewide competition for more than 30 sports.
Over the years, the FHSAA has drawn the ire of some schools for its investigations into recruiting, which is disallowed. Some schools have also accused the FHSAA of being overly punitive to schools when the rules are broken.
Four years ago, a handful of small, independent, mostly Christian schools — many of which had been found guilty of violating FHSAA rules — decided to form their own league: the Sunshine Independent Athletic Association. The SIAA is not recognized by state law, and its 11 member schools can compete only against other member schools.
That could soon change.
The proposal in the Senate would add the SIAA to the state law on high school athletics — and give all private, charter and virtual schools in Florida the option to join.
Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, said he filed the bill to break up the FHSAA’s monopoly on school sports. Existing members of the SIAA are on board with the league’s expansion.
“The FHSAA is a great organization,” said Rex Morgan, athletic director at Arlington Country Day in Jacksonville. “They’ve done wonders. But they have close to 700 members and one size doesn’t fit all.”
But a handful of private school groups — including the Florida Catholic Conference, the Florida Association of Academic Nonpublic Schools and the Florida Council of Independent Schools — have all spoken out against the bill, saying they want all schools to abide by one set of rules.
St. Petersburg Catholic athletic director John Gerdes, who serves on the FHSAA’s Board of Directors, said SPC would not join the SIAA because it’s not part of the National Federation of State High School Associations.
“(Joining the SIAA) would be like requiring Florida and FSU to leave the NCAA,” he said. “…Generally when you have issues with an organization, you try to work within that organization rather than force things.”
Indian Rocks Christian athletic director Phil Farver agreed.
“I’m not going to support legislation that is built for 11 schools that can’t seem to follow the policies and rules,” Farver said
FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing also raised concerns with the proposal. “If charter schools go to this association, somebody better make sure they are adhering to Title IX rules and statutes,” he said.
The bill received a stamp of approval from the Senate Education Committee in a 4-1 vote.
“I suspect if we allowed all public schools the option of a second choice, many of them would take it,” said Sen. Ellyn Bodganoff, a Republican from Fort Lauderdale, who voted for the bill. “Many people are frustrated with the system.”
An earlier version of the House bill would have allowed charter schools and private schools the option to join the SIAA. But Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, took out that provision and instead suggested changes to the FHSAA.
If her bill were to become law, the FHSAA would have to establish guidelines for its investigations and more strictly regulate its investigators.
The bill would also allow more children in private schools to participate in sports at public schools. Currently, the option is only available to children who attend small private schools that do not have a sports program.
What’s more, public school students who transfer to private schools during the school year could qualify for sports.
Stargel said she pitched the bill to “increase the ability of private school students to participate in interscholastic sports in private schools.”
But Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, called the proposal unfair.
“If you have a public high school that doesn’t offer lacrosse, those students are not allowed to transfer to another school in the district to play their game,” Bullard said. “They have to deal with the fact that their high school does not offer that particular sport.”
The bill passed 11-4, with the four dissenting votes cast by Democrats.
Miami Herald staff writer Manny Navarro and Tampa Bay Times staff writer Bob Putnam contributed to this report. Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmgrory@MiamiHerald.com.