FHSAA transfer rules challenged

Two bills in the state legislature seek to revise or at least delay the recent changes, set to be implemented for the upcoming school year.

Published March 29, 2006

More than two months have elapsed since the Florida High School Athletic Association passed highly-publicized transfer rules aimed at limiting a student's ability to hop from high school to high school for athletic purposes.

But bills challenging the changes have been introduced in both the state House of Representatives and Senate. And as a vocal faction of private schools continues to battle the FHSAA, it remains to be seen when the new bylaws will take effect.

"Wait and see," FHSAA commissioner John Stewart said of the organization's current status. "It's all part of the process. You know not to get frustrated. The Legislature is the governing body of the state of Florida. We have no problem with them adding their input to the process."

At issue are Florida statutes involving the right to school choice, as well as the ability of private schools to attract students.

Passed on Jan. 24 by a 44-8 margin, the pending rule essentially states that athletes who transfer high schools must sit out a year of varsity sports at their new school. Included is a list of 10 exceptions the FHSAA believes covers every conceivable nonathletic reason for transferring.

But the Florida Council of Independent Schools, which represents 159 nonpublic schools across the state, contends the new rules are unfair to members of its populace, and at least two legislators have taken up its cause.

A bill has been introduced in the state House of Representatives that would temporarily halt the FHSAA from enacting its new transfer bylaws, originally intended to be implemented July 1.

If passed, the FHSAA would be barred from enacting its new rules until the summer of 2007. (Regardless of the bill's fate, the organization has decided that penalties will not be enforced on athletes who transfer this summer)

In the meantime, a task force would study the recruiting and eligibility situation in the state and "make recommendations that preserve the parental right to school choice while protecting the integrity of Florida's interscholastic athletic program."

That task force would be aided by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, which would conduct an independent review of documented recruiting violations by FHSAA member schools and share those findings with the task force.

"It will provide a better review and will force everybody back to the table, which really wasn't done the first time around," said Skardon Bliss, executive director of the FCIS.

State senator Burt Saunders also authored a bill that is in the preliminary stages of the legislative process. It would force the FHSAA to amend its rules so students who transfer to or from private schools do not have to sit out a year.

The bills are separate, but could conceivably become companions. In order to become law, a bill must pass both the House and Senate before moving on to the governor's office. Saunders said he is confident a bill of some sort will pass before the legislative session concludes at the end of April.

Stewart said Saunders' bill as it reads now would create "chaos" with the free flow of athletes between school.

Saunders, meanwhile, contends the FHSAA's law is "unfair."

The legality of the FHSAA's rule was an issue when it passed. Daniel Webster, a Republican state senator since 1998, wrote in a letter "the amendment would be in direct violation of the legislation's intent in the recent revision of the laws governing high school athletics eligibility."

According to state law regarding public schools, "eligibility requirements for all students participating in high school athletic competition must allow a student to be eligible in the school in which he or she first enrolls each school year."