Open school enrollment serves athletic ambitions


The Minnesota open enrollment law, proposed by then-Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich and passed by the state legislature in 1988, allows students to attend any state high school regardless of where they live. Nearly everyone associated with education, including coaches, administrators and other officials, favors this legislation in itself; but for many students, open enrollment has been used for athletic purposes rather than for its academic intentions.

Open enrollment presently doesn’t require a student to explain why he or she is transferring. At the outset, Minneapolis Roosevelt Athletic Director Al Frost says he expressed his concerns about this. “I told [the late Minneapolis school superintendent] Richard Green that it is going to ruin athletics and it will get out of hand,” he recalls. “Bill McMoore [former Minneapolis district athletic director] mentioned the same thing.”

“When they put that rule in,” St. Paul Highland Park Boys’ Basketball Coach Charles Portis points out, “athletics didn’t creep into the thinking of most people.”

“A number of students are transferring simply because they want to play for this team or that team,” says Minneapolis Public Schools Athletic Director John Washington.

St. Paul Harding Athletic Director Jerry Keenan says that if it weren’t for athletics, “the number of [transfers] would be small.”

Furthermore, open enrollment eliminated the neighborhood school concept in Minneapolis. “Edison High used to be the Edison community,” Washington says, referring to the only public high school on the city’s northeast side. “The kids in that area used to go to Edison High School.”

It is no different in St. Paul, according to Portis, who has been with the St. Paul Schools for three decades. “You played wherever you grew up in your neighborhood,” he recalls.

“It affects everybody — city, out-state, everyone,” says Minneapolis South Girls’ Basketball Coach Ahmil Jihad.

The state lawmakers inadvertently but conveniently supplied a perfect loophole in open enrollment for any student who wishes to transfer for athletic reasons. Until four years ago, a student could transfer schools with few or no limitations; a former student-athlete once played basketball at three different area high schools in four years.

“I’ve seen it totally abused,” says Portis.

Then, the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) in 2002 instituted a one-time transfer rule: The student can transfer and play immediately at his or her new school so long as they are enrolled on the first day of school. If a student wishes to transfer again, he or she must sit out one-half of their varsity season. The student doesn’t lose any eligibility, however, if they switch schools or districts during the year or during the summer because of a change of residence or placement in a foster home (MSHSL Bylaw 111.00).

Unlike what is currently in effect in Minnesota, other states or urban districts nationwide do have stricter restrictions that apply if a student transfers schools for athletic reasons. For example:

• Student-athletes must sit out one year in Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, Florida and New York City.

• In Illinois, a student-athlete is ineligible for 30 days and must get the principals of his or her old school and their new school to sign their transfer papers.

• Student-athletes in Seattle must have the principal of their former school attest that the transfer is not for athletic or disciplinary reasons.

Locally, many see athletic transfers, or Minnesota’s “high school free agency,” as a modern-day Pandora’s Box, often creating an unwanted situation at their new school, notes Minneapolis South Boys Basketball Coach Joe Hyser: “They go to that school strictly for themselves.”

Some players leave for schools they see as winners, Portis says. He lost two players last season “because they thought the program wasn’t going to be that good.”

Jihad said that parents sometimes use sports as a way to obtain a college scholarship for their child. “A parent is going to move their kid because they ultimately want them to get to a Division I school on a scholarship.”

Or, parents sometimes hold the threat of transferring over coaches’ heads, Hyser points out. “I’ve seen where a young man or woman is unhappy and their parents don’t like to see them unhappy,” he explains. “The student says they want to transfer because they can play more or it’s a better coach.

“I also have seen it the other way around,” Hyser says. “A student might be okay where they are at sports-wise, but the parents aren’t. They are going to do everything they can to make sure their kid goes somewhere where they can get playing time.”

Athletic transfers “is an issue that long has been a concern,” says MSHSL Executive Director David Stead, adding that rarely will students admit that sports is the primary reason for transferring. “If you generally ask people why they transfer, very few ever will say it is for athletics. They will always say it is for academic reasons or won’t say anything at all.”

Open enrollment has also fostered a culture of recruiting, which is illegal (MSHSL Bylaw 308.00). According to Hyser, “Open enrollment not only has encouraged recruiting, but it almost demanded it. If you want to be competitive nowadays, many coaches feel that they have to recruit.”

It is a wink-wink sort of thing, jokes Portis: “Some of those high school coaches are better recruiters than what [Head Coach Dan] Monson has on his staff at the University of Minnesota.”

Stead says his office regularly gets calls accusing a school of illegal recruiting. Although the MSHSL doesn’t have an investigative office, “We actually hired outside investigators to go look at a school’s program because of the number of inquiries that we have had,” he recalls.

Without solid evidence, proving that illegal recruiting took place is hard to do, Stead admits. “We’ve had circumstances when people in fact sent letters to us saying that they know this has happened and will testify to it. And when the outside investigator asked them to confirm what they had written, they wouldn’t do it.”

Therefore, Stead says the MSHSL member schools must ensure that each student enrolled is eligible for athletics (MSHSL Bylaws 305.00 and 306.00). “It’s up to the integrity of every school, coach and program to make sure that they follow the rules,” he adds.

Currently, there is no consensus on changing the current prevalence of athletic transfers under open enrollment, but most everyone agrees that something must be done.

Students should be required to play at the school of their home attendance area if they transfer to another school, suggests Frost. Portis wouldn’t mind the high school league adopting the NCAA’s current policy on athletic transfers: “If a kid is going to transfer to another school, and only for athletics, I think that half-year [suspension] is not stiff enough. They’ve got to sit out a year for any sport.”

Stead reports that a group of athletic directors recently expressed their wish for changes: “There were probably 25 athletic directors from around the state, as well as Minneapolis and St. Paul, and every hand went up when I asked how many believe that we should do something to tighten up the transfer rule.”

He adds that if any changes are made, “It may not have any resolution until the 2006-07 school year, and it wouldn’t go into effect until the 2007-08 school year.”

Finally, regardless if any modifications are instituted, open enrollment is here to stay, says Washington. “There are too many influential people out there who will not let this rule go back to where it used to be,” he concludes.

In the interest of full disclosure, the writer of this article is in his tenth year as South High assistant boys’ varsity basketball coach, and has been a Minneapolis high school coach since 1984.