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Public wellness: WIAA satisfied with private schools

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John Barry
June 19, 2013

— The Wisconsin Independent Schools Athletic Association disbanded in June 2000 after 32 years of serving as the governing body of the state’s private high schools.

WISAA’s demise signaled the end of the great debate of public or private. With all of the state’s private schools becoming members of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association beginning in the fall of 2000, the matter of superiority between the public and private schools would finally be resolved.

Or would it?

Fast forward to 2013. Private schools have been participating as members of the WIAA for 14 years. The WIAA sponsors state tournaments for 25 sports and crowns 68 team champions in fall, winter and spring sports. Private schools make up roughly 20 percent of the WIAA’s membership. Of the 68 team champions crowned this past calendar year, 18 came from private schools.

Dave Anderson, the WIAA’s executive director, said the pros far outweigh the cons in regard to all of the state’s high schools competing under one athletic association.

“The sentiment of most our membership is that the kids participating as members of the private schools are the same as my kids or your kids attending public schools,” Anderson said. “And they’re gaining valuable experience as student-athletes.

“Passions, emotions and sentiments will oftentimes outweigh the challenges that still face us.”

The biggest challenge the WIAA faces in regard to private schools and participation is open enrollment. Wisconsin’s interdistrict public school open-enrollment program allows parents to apply for their children to attend school districts other than the one in which they reside.

For example, if my son is an outstanding tennis player living in the Milwaukee public school district, I have the option of sending him to Marquette University High School or University School of Milwaukee—private schools that have dominated the Division 1 and Division 2 state tournaments, respectively.

Can those schools actively recruit my son, according to WIAA bylaws? No. Does it happen anyway? Yes. It’s a time-honored tradition that is difficult to prove legally.

Yet for every dominant athletic program at a private school—Marquette and University School in boys tennis or Madison Edgewood in girls golf—there are also a number steeped in tradition in the public sector. Randolph’s boys basketball program has won nine of the last 12 Division 5 state titles, and Madison Memorial’s boys swim program has won five of the last six Division 1 state titles.

Do those programs recruit, as well? By law, no, but it’s tough to think otherwise judging by the wealth of talent exhibited year in and year out in both programs. Randolph’s enrollment is less than 200, yet the boys basketball program has had a slew of Division I college players in the last 15 years, including former University of Wisconsin star and current Minnesota Timberwolves player Greg Stiemsma.

The WIAA tried to absolve the so-called “recruiting” problem with the idea of possibly bumping up participating private schools one division. A school such as Racine St. Catherine’s, which has a boys basketball program that ruled Division 3 for most of the past decade, would have been moved up to Division 2. The proposal, however, never met majority approval from WIAA board members.

“By an overwhelming percent of feedback, we got the sense that there was opposition from our membership to treating one segment (private schools) differently,” Anderson said. “The largest percent do not wish to create separation within.”

Private schools make up 20 percent of the WIAA’s membership and won just over 25 percent of the state team championships this past calendar year.

Those are numbers the WIAA can live with.

John Barry is a sports writer for The Gazette.



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