Analysis: Football draws a crowd at the Capitol

BATON ROUGE, la. (AP) — The legislative committee room was packed, with education leaders from across Louisiana spilling out into the hall and lawmakers intensely focused on the information at hand.

The talk wasn’t about how to boost student performance, keep teenagers from becoming dropouts, more efficiently spend money in the classroom or assist financially struggling school districts.

No, that’s not what got lawmakers and school principals — some of whom traveled for hours to Baton Rouge — jammed into a more than four-hour joint House and Senate committee hearing.

It was high school football. More specifically, it was a dispute over the playoffs.

“We drew more people today into this room than we do for a budget hearing. It’s just amazing,” said Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles.

Never underestimate the power of sports to draw a crowd and generate heated conversation in Louisiana, even a packed house at the state Capitol.

“This state is about football,” said Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe.

The dispute arose after the Louisiana High School Athletic Association voted to split football playoffs starting with the upcoming season, with games for traditional public high schools separated from those involving private, magnet and charter schools.

The change reworks a system that had been in place for 92 years.

The issue has caused tension among school leaders, and parents are questioning the implications. So, lawmakers created new committees on high school athletics to delve into details of the dispute, even though it’s questionable what authority they might have in meddling in the high school football playoff system.

“Obviously, it is a very important topic, because look at how many people are here,” Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, chairman of the House Education Committee, said several hours into the hearing as he surveyed the room.

Public school principals who pushed the separation told lawmakers the other schools have an unfair advantage because they can cherry-pick students — and football players. They insisted they weren’t trying to rig the system, but wanted to create an equal playing field.

Leaders of private schools and public charter schools said the change is a form of segregation pushed by public school leaders who resent successful private school football programs and who dislike change in the public education system.

The change appeared to be targeted mainly at two high school football programs that together have won 38 football championships since 1921: John Curtis Christian School in Jefferson Parish and Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport.

However, the split also separates out certain types of public schools that are less traditional but are expanding as Louisiana education leaders seek new ways to improve student performance and offer parents more choices for their children.

Charter schools are publicly financed but can be independently run without many of the requirements governing traditional public schools. Magnet schools offer specialized and advanced curricula and can choose which students are accepted.

John Hiser is principal of Edna Karr High School, a charter school in New Orleans. He accused supporters of the split playoff system of taking a specific shot “at reform education.”

“The impact of this would be to make people think twice about chartering a high school. The impact of this would make people think twice from turning a district school to a magnet school,” Hiser said.

Supporters of the split playoffs said any school that doesn’t have to take all the students in an attendance zone should be treated differently.

Todd Guise, principal of Ouachita Parish High School, said the schools separated from traditional public schools can go outside attendance zones to attract students, which he said allows them to manipulate their student populations and football teams.

“I don’t think we can hide the fact that there are advantages to being able to control your student populations,” Guise said.

No truces were brokered at the legislative hearing, but even a dispute about high school sports can highlight the simmering tension in Louisiana’s fragmented education system.

Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.

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