Senate education committee debates sports eligibility

By: - February 24, 2021 6:15 am
Palmyra-Eagle sports fields (photo by Ruth Conniff)

Palmyra-Eagle sports fields (photo by Ruth Conniff)

Debates over virtual education and charter schools resurfaced during a meeting Tuesday of the Senate Education Committee as the committee heard testimony on a bill that would require school boards to allow students enrolled in virtual charter schools to participate in extracurricular activities in the districts where they reside. 

Speaking in favor of the bill was Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg). “I understand we’ve got 40 some approved Department of Public Instruction (DPI) online courses out there that anybody from anywhere in Wisconsin can take,” Stroebel said at the hearing. “Why should we prohibit those taxpayers from that home district who take a DPI approved online course from being able to participate in the extracurricular activities in their very own home district?”

The bill would override WIAA rules that prohibit students who transfer under open enrollment after sophomore year from participating in athletics. Stroebel said this rule change is important to create flexibility for students to leave districts that are conducting school virtually. 

“As we found out for many of our kids, the virtual thing just isn’t working,” he said. “The change would only be in effect until the end of 2022, he said, adding, “I would think COVID would be very far in the rear view mirror by then.”

Stroebel said some parents and students want to choose to enroll in charter schools and shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to participate in sports, which are important for mental health and student engagement. “It’s a horrible disservice to our youth where they don’t even have sports now,” he said. “And these kids are being denied this right to play. It’s not fair. And that’s what this bill seeks to change.”

WIAA responds

Dave Anderson, the executive director of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA), spoke against the proposed law, saying the decision of who participates in sports is not a legislative one.

“The legislature is inserting themselves into the decision-making process of a private and member- directed organization,” Anderson said, saying that a foundational principle of the WIAA is that the 500 member high schools “agree to only use their own full-time students on their interscholastic athletic teams.” 

“One of the key concerns for our members is that when I am enrolled as a full-time student, I buy into all that is required and expected of me as a full-time student, the requirement of daily attendance and making academic progress and requirement of appropriate social behaviors and those sorts of things,” Anderson continued. “This bill creates a lack of uniformity for those who might not be enrolled as full-time students at the high school…”

Anderson also explained that state aid follows students, so the cost of non-enrolled students playing sports would not be reimbursed. “Members schools strive to create an environment where the academics, the athletics and the extracurriculars all work in concert and that young people recognize they are expected to be students.” 

The WIAA, said Anderson, wants to ensure that teams arise organically from communities and aren’t luring students to participate in “super-teams.” 

“These rules are designed to promote fairness equity to all student athletes and members, schools,” Anderson said. “We have experienced in our 125 years as an organization that transfer students have fractured our membership at different times when high-profile individuals will transfer and result in our members refusing to play one another.”

Wade Labecki, the WIAA’s deputy director, clarified that the transfer rule does not apply to families that actually move to new communities, and it operates on a tiered system, so in actuality only seniors who transfer are fully prevented from competing.

Labecki, who coached football for 17 years, said that allowing athletes to compete when they are not enrolled at the school could displace other students from spots on teams.  “I asked kids to come into the weight room. I asked kids to come to practice every day. I asked kids to give up their summertime to run and to prepare for the season,” said Labecki. “And that kid who has done all of those things that I’ve asked is now displaced by another student and somebody else has taken their spot. The rule is to protect all the kids who are participating in their program at the current time, so they’re not displaced. And abuses are real.”

CORRECTION: The quotes in favor of the education bill were incorrectly attributed to an individual who had registered in favor of the bill. The article has been fixed to reflect that the comments were from Sen. Duey Stroebel. We regret the error.

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Catherine Capellaro
Catherine Capellaro

Catherine Capellaro is a freelance writer and the arts and culture editor for Isthmus in Madison, Wisconsin. She is also the former managing editor of Rethinking Schools, a former anchor and reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio and WORT-89.9 FM and an accomplished playwright and musician.