Economics

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Rich Team, Poor Team? States Might Level the Economic Playing Field

2 Oct, 2019

By: Michael Popke

We’ve all heard the complaints: kids enrolled in sports teams at schools in lower-income areas don’t have access to the same coaching, staffing and equipment their wealthier counterparts do – and wind up with demoralizing losses as well as injuries that set the team even further behind. Now, at least one state is examining the idea of trying to create new divisions to put kids on equal footing.

So the question becomes this: What if the poverty level of a school’s student body was used to decide which teams it played? The New York Times recently posed it when exploring a potential connection between economic status and sports performance.

In some states, debate is swirling over whether to separate by division poor schools from richer schools, which have more and better equipment, as well as larger and more specialized coaching staffs. Schools often are assigned to athletic divisions based on enrollment sizes.

Officials overseeing high school sports in states including Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and Colorado have added provisions allowing schools with high poverty levels to drop down to lower athletic divisions (especially for football) in recent years, according to The Times.

Iowa is considering the idea.

“Our kids don’t want to be classified as poor kids who have to play lower-level competition,” Mitchell Moore, a football coach at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, told The Times. “I’m a big believer that socioeconomics has nothing to do with catching a football.”

That said, over the past decade, Des Moines’ five large public high schools have a combined 0-104 record against rivals with more affluent student bodies, according to the paper.

“On just about every Friday night, they outsize us, they outman us and they outnumber us,” Sherry Poole, principal of Hoover High in Des Moines, said about the suburban powerhouses on the school’s schedule that have won several state championships. “Your heart just kind of stops whenever someone gets crunched.”

“We don’t feel like we are coddling these students; we feel like we are trying to put them on an even playing field,” added Peter Weber, executive director of the Oregon School Activities Association, explaining that organization’s decision to allow schools flexibility in division membership. “We need to match kids up with competition that is safe for them so they can walk out on a field and be competitive.”

In districts where money is not an issue, club sports are a common experience for young athletes well before they reach high school. As a result, they not only enter high school with more experience and training, but they’re also more accustomed to playing with one another. That’s not necessarily the case at schools in less-affluent areas.

“The divide has always been there, but it has widened,” Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, told The Times. That divide in sports, he added, can lead to gaps in academic success and impact professional success.

In June, Des Moines Public Schools asked the Iowa High School Athletic Association and the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union (which both oversee interscholastic sports in Iowa) “to convene a committee to seriously evaluate the competitive needs of students and schools in order to experience success and the inequities inherent in a system based solely on enrollment size without consideration of family and community capacity for support and make a recommendation to a joint board of both associations to resolve this issue in the 2019-2020 school year.”

In a blog post on the DMPS website, district superintendent Tom Ahart described the issue as “an ethical quandary” and cited the need to provide equity of opportunities across the whole spectrum of the high school student experience.

“The goal is not to guarantee hollow victory,” the blog post stated. “It’s to ensure a sporting chance versus commensurate opponents and offer a more enriching experience than losses by an average score of 51-10. All kinds of injury occur on playing fields tilted so severely.”

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