In nearly 30 years coaching girls' basketball at McPherson High School, Chris Strathman has gotten used to seeing Bishop Miege Catholic High School in the post-season.
Year after year, season after season, it's been them and a few other Kansas private high schools that his student athletes have met in the post-season. Most of those times, the private school teams go on to win the 4A state basketball championship.
It's not just girls basketball, either. Strathman says that he's gotten used to seeing those teams win dozens of Kansas State High School Activities Association championships over a fraction of the years, with lopsided scores often headlining even the championship games or matches between the private schools and public school runners-up.
"During my career, and especially in the post-season, I've just accepted it as part of the deal of being the coach at McPherson," he told the Kansas State Board of Education. "Seeing how this impacted teams, schools and communities during the most recent class 4A state basketball tournament gave me a much different perspective since I wasn't watching simply as a fan."
The Kansas State Board of Education on Wednesday held a public hearing for a KSHSAA proposal that could bump several of the state's private schools up a classification in athletic and activity competition.
That proposal, forwarded to the state board after a vote of approval among dozens of KSHSAA directors, would be among the most significant changes to KSHSAA's structure in more than a half-century of interscholastic competition.
The proposal, years in the making, would potentially move private schools into higher, more competitive classifications. The new criteria would first consider a private school's success in post-season play over the preceding five years, counting the number of championships the school has won among any of its team events.
Should a school have at least five championships, other factors based on geography and the number of students on free- or reduced-price lunch (a common stand-in metric for students from high-poverty households) would kick in. Bill Faflick, KSHSAA executive director, says the organization expects about seven private schools would be affected initially, should the proposal clear both the state board and the Kansas Legislature.
Kansas is among about half of U.S. states that don't apply an adjustment factor for private school competition.
Public school teams exasperated at dominance of private school peers
Jeff Hines, principal at Paola High School and the parent of children enrolled at a private school, said the board needed to act on what has been a pattern of competitive imbalance.
Despite accounting for only about 8% of Kansas high schools, private schools have won nearly 40% of state championships, per Hines' analysis of KSHSAA competition. He said a survey of officials at nearly every high school in the state showed that about four in five believe there's a problem of competitiveness.
"It's easy to define that a problem exists," he said. "What's hard is to bring everyone together and develop a cohesive plan everyone can agree with."
But the KSHSAA proposal, borne of years of discussion and multiple opportunities for stakeholder input, was as close to something that could satisfy most everyone, he said.
Hines said nothing in the proposal would take anything away from any student in Kansas, and everyone would still have the equal opportunity to participate in high school interscholastic competition.
"You may hear words from opponents that are scary, that this is discriminatory, punitive or unfair," Hines said. "But I'll say this — how can we look in the eyes of our student participants in activities or athletics and say that the final score of a state championship basketball game, won by a private school by more than 50 points, is fair?"
Strathman, the McPherson coach, pointed to the vote among the KSHSAA board of directors to make the proposal recommendation.
While most schools that responded voted overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal, there wasn't as much support among schools classified as 6A, the state's largest classification and among which no private schools currently play.
"If the very largest schools in Kansas don’t want private schools in their classifications, doesn’t that speak volumes about the frustrations of the rest of us?" Strathman asked the board.
Critics say reclassification would be 'shotgun approach' to private schools
For their part, representatives from several of the state's private school systems voiced deep concerns that the proposal was unfairly targeting a handful of dominant schools at the expense of all schools.
Geoff Andrews, superintendent for the Diocese of Salina's Catholic schools, rejected accusations that private schools like the ones in his system recruit students. Most students among his schools and other Kansas private schools — most of which are faith-based — come from feeder schools in their area, rather than from being "poached" from competitive teams, he said.
"A survey of our families showed the top three reasons why they enroll their children in our Catholic education, and they were Catholic identity, class size and the academic reputation of our schools," he said.
Speaking on behalf of presidents from the Catholic high school in Johnson County — including Bishop Miege High School, which has been the target of much of the criticism on competitive imbalance — Andrews said the three school presidents request the board to consider an alternative proposal.
Instead of applying an enrollment modifier for all private schools depending on their success, the Johnson County schools indicated they would willingly petition KSHSAA to each move up a classification, without a formal multiplier. However, no such provision currently exists for such a move in KSHSAA's statute or regulations.
Marty Straub, athletic director of Kapaun Mt. Carmel Catholic High School in Wichita, said the proposal was taking a "shotgun approach" to all private schools. While his school had won six state championships in the last five years, he said those trophies have been the work of just 28 students out of more than 2,000 student participants over those five years.
While he admitted that recruiting and student transfers in violation of KSHSAA regulations are a pressing issue, Straub said it would be disingenuous to suggest it is only a problem between private schools.
He pointed out that many public schools currently have open enrollment policies that have allowed them to take student talent from outside of their district boundaries. Since the Kansas Legislature in the spring mandated all of the state's districts adopt open enrollment policies, unofficial recruiting will continue to plaque all schools equally, he said.
"This shotgun approach proposal punishes all private and parochial schools because of an imbalance of high levels of success at just a few school in our state," he said.
What happens next for KSHSAA proposal
Although the state education board held its public hearing Wednesday, members took no action and held little discussion on the reclassification proposal. Board chair Jim Porter said the board would take up the proposal as an action item at its September meeting.
Before and after the hearing, Porter noted that the board was taking on a particularly contentious topic.
"I was on a committee in another state 35 years ago discussing this exact same thing, and at that time, we decided we didn't have the fortitude to do anything about it, so we didn't," the retired superintendent said.
Per KSHSAA's state charter, the education board must clear any changes to its school classification process, although it could only do so in an up-or-down vote, meaning the board couldn't make any modifications to the proposal as approved by KSHSAA's directors.
KSHSAA, as part of its proposal, is also requesting a change to the state statute governing the organization. Currently, state law only allows KSHSAA to classify schools by enrollment, but the legislative component of the proposal would add language allowing KSHSAA and the state board to also make classification changes by other means.
State education commissioner Randy Watson told the board that education department lawyers would need to meet with their counterparts at KSHSAA to determine what would happen should the board vote to accept the recommendations without the statutory language change in the Legislature.
Rep. Tim Johnson, a Republican legislator and an assistant football coach at Basehor-Linwood High School who spoke in favor of the proposal, said the board could count on him to at least introduce and advance a bill making that statutory change.
"You have my support and guarantee that I will work legislatively on this matter, as soon as its passed," he said.
Rafael Garcia is an education reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 785-289-5325. Follow him on Twitter at @byRafaelGarcia.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: KSHSAA proposal would bump private schools into higher sports classes