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Our View: CCPS’ out-of-district policy change doesn’t solve problem, creates new ones

We understand why the Board of Education voted last week to amend Carroll County Public Schools’ out-of-district policy. There are concerns that high school athletes use it to go somewhere to get more playing time — at the expense of students playing at their “home school” — or to be a part of a more successful program. Another goal was to eliminate the perception that students were being recruited and that it was resulting in powerhouse teams.

The problem is, this change won’t stop out-of-district athletes from switching schools before high school, when the majority do it, it will encourage serious athletes who find themselves in situations they don’t like to leave for private school and it penalizes athletes who have legitimate reasons for transferring that have nothing to do with sports.

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Beginning next school year, varsity athletes changing schools will be placed on “restricted eligibility,” meaning they can practice but are barred from “competition, public performances or leadership roles" for one year. It doesn’t affect non-athletes, so students can transfer to get to a marching band or drama program more to their liking or for, literally, any reason other than varsity sports.

The “school choice” policy was approved in 2016 at least in part to boost enrollment numbers by trying to keep students in public schools who might otherwise have chosen private school or homeschooling. But BOE Vice President Marsha Herbert said she was “bombarded” by calls asking her to take another look at the policy. She told us she attended a high school game last year and noted that four starters on one of the teams were out-of-district players and that “it wasn’t fair.”

But even after this change is implemented, there’s no guarantee that won’t continue to happen.

According to CCPS data, 313 students attended high schools outside of their home districts in 2018-19, with 113 of those participating in athletics. Of those, 29 had changed schools after reaching high school. The other 84 started their high school careers at out-of-district schools.

So eighth-graders are still free to choose any high school that is less than 97% of capacity. They can still decide they don’t want to play for a particular program or coach and they can still decide they want to join friends they play with at the club level. And there will still be rumors of recruiting — either by coaches or other kids — of top middle school athletes.

We think what Century High School girls lacrosse coach Becky Groves told us is more norm than exception: “I do have a few transfers, but they came in either freshman year or transferred when they weren’t a varsity athlete."

Of the athletes who transfer from one high school to another, some of them certainly do so for exactly the reasons the policy is aiming to eliminate. But kids who are hyper-motivated by sports and think they are stuck in a bad situation are exactly the type of students who will leave for a private school after the implementation of this policy change.

Meanwhile, there are many who play varsity sports just to be a part of a team and to do something they enjoy. Previously, if those students wanted to transfer, perhaps to participate in Junior ROTC or to take a class not offered in their home school or to get out of a bad situation, possibly involving bullying, they could do so and continue playing sports. Now, knowing that leaving means they can’t play varsity sports for a year, they may be more likely to stay, depriving themselves of an improved educational experience or remaining in a miserable situation.

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We understand the rationale behind this policy change, but we don’t think it adequately addresses the problem it was out to solve given how few athletes transfer after enrolling in high school. And we think it has the potential to hurt kids who are not trying to game the system.

If school leaders really considered students transferring strictly for athletics a major problem, the entire school choice policy should’ve been scrapped. If, on the other hand, they thought the policy was working, they should’ve left it alone rather than penalizing a small number of athletes.

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