State budget change could help SCHSL address charter school athletics concerns

State lawmakers on Tuesday approved an amendment that could give the S.C. High School League greater authority to deal with competition concerns regarding charter and private schools.

Members of the S.C. House, in a 64-46 vote, approved the addition to a proviso — or a one-year law — in the annual budget that says “the interscholastic athletic association has the authority to make adjustments in the classifications to promote competitive balance.”

There are 219 member schools split into five classifications in the S.C. High School League. Of those, 15 are public charter schools and four are private schools.

Gray Collegiate Academy in West Columbia and other S.C. charters — along with the private schools that compete in the public league — have been increasingly dominant in sports in recent years. Critics say the charters that are sports-focused attract more and better athletes, build powerful teams and have an advantage with what amounts to a statewide attendance zone.

And because they cap enrollment, they compete for state championships against the smaller and traditionally rural high schools in Class 1A and Class 2A.

This school year, 13 of the 16 team fall and winter state championships in Class A and 2A were won by charter or private schools. Teams from Oceanside Collegiate in Mount Pleasant have won two more state titles this spring. Meanwhile, Oceanside faces Gray in the Class 2A boys soccer state championship this Saturday. The Class 2A girls soccer state title game will pit Oceanside against a private school.

Tuesday’s budget amendment was sponsored by state Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun.

“I think we need to change it and level the playing field,” said state Rep. Richie Yow, a Republican who represents parts of Chesterfield, Darlington and Lancaster counties. “I hope the body supports this bill because I think it gives us the option. If we put it off, I feel like we are waiting and kicking the can down the road. I think for my seven or eight high schools in the region, we are 100 percent for this and appreciate this amendment.”

The budget approval process still has a few more hurdles to clear in the coming weeks before it becomes law for the upcoming year. If the amendment passes through that process and remains in the budget, it would become law July 1 and be in place for one year.

What might happen after July 1 wasn’t immediately known. The State reached out to S.C. High School League commissioner Jerome Singleton on Tuesday seeking comment on the budget amendment.

The two most-talked-about ideas for dealing with these specific competitive balance concerns have been:

Moving the charter and private schools to their own classification and their own playoffs so they’re competing against each other for state championships.

Enacting some sort of “multiplier” system that’s either based on athletic success or an enrollment factor that would make a school “play up” and into a higher classification and face tougher competition. Georgia, Tennessee and about 20 other states have some sort of multiplier system in place.

The new proviso — which allows for “adjustments in the classifications to promote competitive balance” — sounds more closely tied to the idea of putting charters into their own class and a separate playoff.

An existing proviso that’s been in place for 10 years restricts the S.C. High School League’s ability to specifically govern its charter and private school teams, league representatives said last week in comments made in a House education subcommittee meeting. Singleton was among the league representatives who voiced public support for removing that language from state law.

The existing proviso that’s renewed in the state budget each year, among other things, “guarantees that private or charter schools are afforded the same rights and privileges that are enjoyed by all other members of the association” and that participation cannot be restricted in “state playoffs or championships based solely on its status as a private school or charter school.”

The proviso that was approved Tuesday, however, added the additional language to the state budget and did not alter or remove any existing wording.