By Maureen Hayden
Indiana’s open enrollment law has allowed thousands of Hoosier students to go to school outside the district where they live, but it’s also created more of a headache for the organization that governs high school sports.
Since the open enrollment law went into effect in 2009, the Indiana High School Athletic Association has seen a sharp spike in the number of student-athletes leaving one school for another. That means more requests the IHSAA has to review from student-athletes who don’t want to lose their eligibility to play sports. And more appeals from student-athletes who’ve been told by the IHSAA to sit on the bench.
“I’m all behind school choice and letting families decide what school is best for their child for academic reasons,” IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox said. “But the moment athletics enters into the equation, then it goes outside our rules.”
The Indiana General Assembly is considering legislation that would make it more difficult for Indiana schools to turn away transfer students from neighboring school districts. The legislation is aimed at schools that are “cherry-picking” from transfer applicants, taking the best students and turning away students with special needs, low test scores, or minor disciplinary problems.
Cox has worked with the author of the bill, Republican state Rep. Mike Karickhoff, to make sure the legislation doesn’t dilute the IHSAA’s authority to deny eligibility to student-athletes who transfer into another school district just so they can play sports for another team.
Under IHSAA rules, students may be barred from participating in interschool athletics if they make the switch to a new school to take advantage of a better sports program at the other school, or transfer because of a conflict with a coach.
IHSAA officials are concerned that the open enrollment law has made it easier for student-athletes to skirt those rules.
“There is this notion among certain parents who believe that since ‘my student can go anywhere they want for academic reasons,’ that it means athletic ability is portable too,” Cox said.
The Indiana General Assembly passed the open enrollment law in 2008 after the state took over the funding of local schools. The law allows students to cross school district boundaries and attend a school outside of their home district without having to pay tuition, as was required before the law was passed.
Before the law took effect, the IHSAA processed about 3,000 requests from student-athletes who had transferred into a new school and requested the IHSAA approve their eligibility to play sports. About 90 percent were approved because they met the organization’s transfer rules, which required a “bona fide” change of residence by the family of the athlete into a school district.
Last school year, the number of student-athletes transferring into another district had grown to 4,000. The IHSAA approved about 95 percent of their requests to play sports, convinced that the transfers were for valid, academic reasons.
But the number of appeals filed by student-athletes who were denied eligibility by the IHSAA doubled, Cox said.
“We’re in full support of the law so long as it meets the academic needs of students,” Cox said. “What we don’t want to see is ‘school choice’ become convoluted because of athletics.”