Arizona's Open Enrollment for public schools benefits the wealthier districts in Sports
Brian Stephenson was the varsity baseball coach at Westwood High School in Mesa from 2007 to 2012. Not once in his six seasons as coach did Westwood finish with a winning record.
In June 2012, Stephenson was hired as the coach at Desert Mountain in Scottsdale. In his first season, he led Desert Mountain to a 31-4 record and the Division I state championship for the largest high schools.
Stephenson didn’t change who he was or how he coached. He didn’t become smarter overnight. He simply reaped the benefits of moving from a poorer Division I school to an affluent school.
“At Westwood, the kids come in as freshmen and they haven’t been able to afford to play club baseball,” Mesa Public Schools Athletic Director Steve Hogen said. “He’s teaching them basic fundamentals, like how to throw and how to play the game.
“The kids at Desert Mountain have had more opportunities. They’ve played club. They all have their own bats and equipment. They know how to play. Here is this guy who is at Westwood and some of the parents aren’t happy with him because he’s not winning, and he goes to Desert Mountain and wins a championship.”
Stephenson’s transformation from losing coach to state championship coach is just one example of how money has influenced — and in some ways defined — high-school sports in Arizona.
To assess the impact that financial resources have on athletic programs, azcentral sports analyzed the 91 public Valley high schools by the number of students eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program, tax-credit donations targeted specifically for sports, and the number of state championships won by each school from 2005 through the end of the 2012-13 school year.
(Private schools such as Brophy College Prep in Phoenix or Valley Christian High School in Chandler were excluded because their data is not readily available).
Ten of the 91 schools have less than 15 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Those 10 schools have won a combined 87 of the 288 state championships (30.2 percent) from 2005 through May 2013. The 40 schools with at least 50 percent of their students eligible have won a combined 42 titles (14.6 percent).
The 10 schools in the less affluent Phoenix Union High School District — South Mountain, Alhambra, North, Carl Hayden, Betty Fairfax, Cesar Chavez, Camelback, Trevor Browne, Central and Maryvale — have combined to win 13 state titles since 2005. Two schools in affluent north Scottsdale — Chaparral and Desert Mountain — have won a combined 37 championships.
Schools with three or more titles since 2005 received an average of $78,000 in athletic tax-credit donations, including participation fees, in the 2012-13 school year — nearly double the figure for schools without any titles in that time.
“Does it bother me? Sure it bothers me,” said Harold Slemmer, executive director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, high-school sports’ governing body in the state. “I don’t think there’s any question in the years I’ve been in this job the challenges of creating an equal playing field have become greater and greater to the point where I’m not even sure I can say with any deal of confidence that there is an equal playing field.”
Slemmer said he believes the advantages for wealthier schools began in earnest in 1994, when the Arizona Legislature passed the Arizona School Improvement Act. The legislation included open enrollment for state high schools, allowing freshmen to attend schools outside of the attendance boundary zones they live in.
Lisa Graham Keegan, then the Arizona House of Representatives Education Committee chairwoman who sponsored the bill, said the purpose of the law was to provide academic choices for “the greatest number of kids. It had nothing to do with sports.”
Keegan, who won election as the state superintendent of public instruction that fall, said legislators discussed the impact that open enrollment might have on athletics but determined “there already was recruiting going on. They weren’t going to do anything they hadn’t already been doing.”
In fact, parents started “recruiting” schools, using open enrollment to shop for the best athletic environment for their children. Programs at wealthier schools have benefited because they can build facilities and provide incentives — better equipment, out-of-state or overseas trips — that programs at poorer schools can’t afford. The result: the creation of destination programs that lure kids from all over the Valley and in turn create an unequal playing field.
The lack of parity is particularly evident in football, which relies on participation numbers more than any other sport. Among the Valley’s wealthier schools, Hamilton High in south Chandler has won four of the past five Division I titles. Chaparral in Scottsdale has won three of the past four Division II titles. Another Scottsdale school, Saguaro, has won five Division III titles since 2006.
In contrast, the state of Pennsylvania, which has no open-enrollment statute, has maintained a level of parity. From 2005 to 2011, seven different football programs won Pennsylvania’s Class AAAA title, its highest classification.
“Open enrollment has been the gate that’s opened it all up,” Slemmer said. “Now a parent can justify all sorts of reasons why they go outside their boundaries. That’s ratcheted up the level of competition among schools. When you create this reason to come here, to be a destination school, people are going to take advantage of that.”
In fall 2007, the Chaparral Firebirds Football Foundation, which is the booster arm of the Chaparral football program, decided it wanted to upgrade the school’s facilities. Mickey Cummings, then the foundation’s president, said the foundation borrowed $500,000 to install a field turf surface. The loan, Cummings said, was guaranteed by eight families.
Cummings said the foundation then took out another loan — this one for just more than $600,000 and guaranteed by two families — for construction of a two-story field house that includes upstairs offices for the coaches, a meeting room, plasma TVs and a football Hall of Champions.
“It wasn’t the world’s biggest necessity, but we wanted our kids to have almost a collegiate experience in high school,” Cummings said.
The facilities serve another purpose: They attract athletes — both in open enrollment and as transfers — from all over the Valley.
One high-profile example: In 2011, All-Arizona defensive end Jarvis Lewis transferred to Chaparral from Raymond S. Kellis in Glendale. Chaparral won the Division II state title that year, its third straight state championship. Raymond S. Kellis finished 4-6 and failed to make the playoffs.
(School officials at Raymond S. Kellis disputed Lewis’ transfer, but ultimately an attorney conducting an independent investigation for the Arizona Interscholastic Association ruled that there wasn’t any discernible evidence that Lewis had been recruited.)
“If somebody decides to go to Chaparral that should have gone to Agua Fria, that doesn’t play into our justification,” for building the field house, Cummings said. “We’re just trying to provide the most positive experience for our kids.”
Mesa’s Hogen said the facilities and extras that affluent schools can afford are an “unspoken recruitment.”
“When you have kids leave your attendance zone to go to other schools, it really hurts,” Betty Fairfax High School Athletic Director Reynaldo Peru said. “I guess I’m one of those old-school guys that says you play the hand you were dealt, and you learn how to win with that hand. But nowadays, not everybody wants to play that game.
“It’s not good, but there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s what is sad.”
Wealthier schools do not receive a disproportionate amount of state funding.
Hogen, Peoria Unified School District Athletic Director Mike Sivertson and other athletic directors said funding is distributed evenly within the schools in their district.
But an inherent advantage for wealthier schools is the private instruction, year-round training and club-sports participation their parents can afford to pay.
“It constitutes a head start,” Sivertson said. “And catching up for other schools is a challenge.”
The costs of elite club programs vary, but Brett Benson said he paid between $5,000 and $6,000 per year for his daughter, Amanda, a former Phoenix Xavier Prep student, to play for the Spiral Volleyball Club her senior season.
Miranda Davis’ daughter, Avianna, a Peoria Centennial junior, has been playing club softball with the Arizona Hotshots since she was 10 years old. Miranda Davis said the dues are between $2,500 and $3,000 per year, not including travel and equipment.
The out-of-school instruction has a two-fold effect: It improves the skill level of the athletes, and they in turn help their high-school teams succeed. Phoenix Horizon and Scottsdale Desert Mountain, with just 13.2 percent and 8.9 percent of their students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches respectively, have won five state girls volleyball championships since 2005.
Since 2005, either a private school (Phoenix Xavier) or schools with less than 22 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches have won the big-school girls state soccer championship. Both sports have flourishing club scenes in Arizona.
“For poor students, America doesn’t have a school problem. It has a summer-vacation problem,” Mesa’s Hogen said. “If you don’t play club volleyball or club in other sports, your high-school team is not going to be very good, and that eliminates all the poor schools right away.”
Susan Prado-Ortiz is the softball coach at Glendale Apollo. She said most of her athletes don’t play club ball or receive private instruction, because of the expense involved. As a result, when she first gets the players as freshmen, she often has to teach them the basic fundamentals of the game.
“We’re starting from square one trying to teach these kids,” Prado-Ortiz said. “So many of our kids don’t even know how to throw a ball. We’re teaching them how to throw it, where their feet should be, how to catch it.
“To have private hitting coaches, private agility lessons … when you’ve got money you have a great, big advantage over the kids I deal with. It’s not hard to coach athletes who get the best training money can afford. Anybody can get a team of all-stars and win. But it’s very hard to coach non-athletes.”
Because athletes in poorer schools don’t get the year-round instruction needed to compete with richer schools, Peru said, the goals of those athletic programs have to change.
“When you’re in a program with limited resources, you’re trying to fight just to be a .500 team,” he said. “For some of our teams, a .500 season is going to be very successful. Everybody wants to win state championships, and they’re nice to have, but for us, those things are very hard to come by.”
Susan Edwards, the athletic director at McClintock High in Tempe, has been on both sides of the divide.
McClintock has won three state titles since ’05, and 34.8 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
From 2007 to 2011, Edwards was the principal at Tempe Corona del Sol, which has seven state titles since ’05 and 7.9 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
“I don’t like to connect wins and losses to money,” Edwards said, “but to think it doesn’t matter means we’d be living in a bubble.”
One of the benefits wealthier schools have, Edwards said, is the ability to hire quality coaches and keep them for a longer period of time.
Salaries aren’t the issue. Coaches receive stipends on top of their pay as educators, and the stipends range from $1,000 to $4,000, according to figures obtained by azcentral sports from the districts. One former Division I football coach said he estimated he made 98 cents an hour for all the hours he put into coaching.
Poorer schools have a difficult time attracting coaches because the job is inherently more difficult. In the Phoenix Union High School District, for example, 75 percent of the student population is Hispanic, and national studies suggest that Hispanic females have some of the lowest participation percentages in high-school sports because their culture encourages them to come home after school to help with the family.
Scottsdale Coronado baseball coach Buck Holmes said he’s lost count of how many kids he’s coached who have had to miss practice because they work a part-time job in order to help their families with bills.
“When coaches come into this district, I say to them, ‘You’re coming here to prove a point, that you can find a way to win in this district,’ ” Peru said.
Hogen said that when he has to hire a coach for sports such as softball or volleyball, he feels fortunate to get one qualified candidate “because kids in Mesa don’t generally play club sports.”
The dearth of candidates and constant turnover make it even more difficult for poor schools to close the gap on wealthier schools.
“If I was a high-school coach today and I wanted a chance to be successful, I would want to be at a school that has the chance to get good kids out,” Slemmer said. “The ones that are never going to win, who would want those jobs? You’re on a treadmill trying to get a program going.”
“When was the last time a less affluent school won a state championship?” asked Steve Campbell, football coach at Division III Gilbert Williams Field. Campbell previously coached at McClintock, a larger, but less affluent school that had its last winning season in 2006 under him. “It doesn’t happen very often. That’s hard for a coach to accept.”
Hogen put it more succinctly.
“Losing sucks,” he said. “It’s not fun to keep doing it.”
Other factors contribute to the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Administrators say the annual cost of a college education — it was $21,447 in the fall of 2011, according to collegedata.com — has parents chasing a college scholarship and believing their chances are better if their child plays for a more successful athletic program.
Arizona school tax-credit donations vary greatly from school to school. In the 2012-13 school year, Hamilton received $213,605 in tax credits that were targeted specifically for athletics; Phoenix Carl Hayden received $6,444. The additional revenue allows affluent schools to buy new equipment, maintain or upgrade their facilities, hire additional coaches and provide perks such as catered meals on road trips.
“There’s no question tax-credit money is a good thing, but it’s a double-edged sword,” Slemmer said. “The haves get the parents involved, and they make it the absolute best they can make it for their kids. But the have-nots can’t do that, and it makes it more difficult for them to compete.”
Booster clubs at affluent schools also can provide far more for student-athletes than booster clubs at poor schools.
The Hamilton Gridiron Booster Club helped raise $350,000 for the team’s trip to Ireland last fall to play in the Global Ireland Football Tournament.
The goal of Betty Fairfax’s boosters, Peru said, is to raise enough money to cover the team’s season-ending banquet.
“They pretty much live off what they sell out of the concession stands,” he said.
The advantages of wealthier schools are so varied and absolute that Slemmer doesn’t know if it’s possible to create true equity of competition. Like everyone else, he can clearly see the scoreboard:
The rich schools win, and the poor schools lose.
“I wish I could say it’s going to get better, but I have to be realistic,” Slemmer said. “I think it’s going to get worse.”