By Phil Anastasia
New Jersey state assemblyman John Burzichelli likes the school choice program.
But Burzichelli believes that the increasingly popular program has been used in some cases to destroy the competitive balance in high school sports.
He plans to do something about that.
Burzichelli on Tuesday announced plans to introduce legislation that would ensure that school-choice students play sports on their sending-district teams, not their choice district teams, unless the sending district does not offer the sport.
"There's no bad guys here," Burzichelli said in a telephone interview. "Everybody is playing by the rules. But this has been an unintended consequence of this law, which was intended to create educational opportunities.
"The whole idea of interscholastic sports is to have a level playing field and in some cases that has been thrown out of whack."
If introduced and passed, Burzichelli's legislation could take effect as soon as September and could have a significant impact on teams that feature athletes who are school-choice students.
Burzichelli said he wasn't sure if the situation could be addressed through legislation or through the state's Department of Education, which oversees the school choice program.
Burzichelli said he has discussed the matter with acting New Jersey Commission of Education David Hespe.
"He is sensitive to this," Burzichelli said of Hespe. "I'm not sure if something can be done through his department or whether we need to go the legislative route. I'm awaiting his reponse.
"But it's clear to me that this situation needs to be addressed."
NJSIAA executive director Steve Timko issued a statement Tuesday night expressing support for Burzichelli's efforts.
"From the inception of New Jersey's Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, NJSIAA and its members articulated concern about the program’s potential consequences related to interscholastic sports, including the formation of what some have called 'super teams'" Timko said. "We look forward to working with all stakeholders, including Assemblyman Burzichelli, to help address this situation.”
Burzichelli (D-Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland), the former mayor of Paulsboro and a resident of the town, said his attention was drawn to the matter by media reports of success of the Bound Brook wrestling team.
Bound Brook has won three consecutive Group 1 state titles in wrestling. Before that, Paulsboro won 25 of the previous 26 Group 1 state titles.
On Feb. 15, Bound Brook defeated Paulsboro by 46-16 in the Group 1 state title match.
"Bound Brook is heavily-laden with school choice kids," Burzichelli said.
In South Jersey, high schools that participate in the program or have been approved as a choice district for 2014-15 include Atlantic City, Audubon, Collingswood, Delsea, Deptford, Gateway, Glassboro, Haddon Heights, Hammonton, Lindenwold, Lower Cape May, Mainland, Middle Township, Northern Burlington, Ocean City, Paulsboro, Pemberton, Pennsville, Salem, Schalick, Sterling, Vineland and Woodbury.
According to the state department of education, there are 136 school-school districts. The program was expanded in 2011 and the number of choice students has nearly doubled in the last couple of years, to around 6,100.
Under current NJSIAA rules, a student who earned a varsity letter in a sport at his sending school who enrolls in a choice school must sit out 30 days before becoming eligible to participate in that sport in the choice district.
"This restriction does little to address the issue of student athletes transferring to choice districts for athletic advantage,"Burzichelli said. "The purpose of the public school choice program was to increase educational opportunities for students, but the law has had the unintended consequence of allowing some scholastic sports teams to achieve dominance by eliminating the competitive balance between schools."
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