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Tenn. Private Schools Press To Alter Rule for Sports Eligibility

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A dispute over an athletic-eligibility rule has kicked off the fall sports season in Tennessee high schools and left many private school officials feeling cheated and misunderstood.

The group that governs the state's secondary school athletics limits the number of students receiving financial aid who can participate in interscholastic sports.

The decade-old "financial-aid quota rule" is designed to discourage athletic recruiting by private schools. The rule states that, regardless of a school's size, a maximum of 14 male and 11 female students receiving financial aid can play on teams sanctioned by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association.

To many in the private school sector who are beefing up their aid programs to attract a variety of students, the rule is arbitrary and discriminatory. Each year, independent schools across the state are faced with a difficult task: telling students they cannot play--not for their lack of ability, but for their lack of money.

The association, which governs sports in about 50 private and 300 public schools, is the only state secondary school sports group that limits eligibility to a set number, rather than to a percentage of enrollment or students on aid.

Playing by the Rules

For years, the all-boys McCallie School in Chattanooga abided by the rule, finding its own solutions to a dilemma exacerbated by increasing numbers of students receiving aid. Over the past several years, the boys school has made room for more athletes by adding lacrosse, rowing, swimming, diving, and water polo programs--all sports not governed by the association.

But "we're out of new sports to create," said William R. Steverson, a spokesman for the school. "We don't think there is much interest in creating a croquet team."

Last August, McCallie officials decided they would no longer comply with the quota rule. Joined by Girls Preparatory School, McCallie's sister school, they rejected the policy and asked the athletic association to review it.

The association agreed and formed a committee of five public school and five independent school representatives to address the issue. During a meeting this month, the committee voted 8 to 2 to present the association's legislative council with a recommendation to change the existing system.

The council will meet Dec. 7 to discuss the proposal, which starting next year would tie eligibility to the percentage of students on financial aid at the school.

In the meantime, the association has barred McCallie and Girls Preparatory School from playoff competition.

Causing a Rift

"I think it's a compromise that we can live with," Mr. Steverson said. But he and other non-public school officials expressed concern over whether the nine-person legislative council, which includes only one independent school representative, will adopt the resolution.

The issue has caused hard feelings in an otherwise cooperative program between public and independent schools. The perception is that private schools "are only for rich kids or athletes," Mr. Steverson said.

"McCallie School favors the passage of stronger anti-recruiting and transfer rules," Spencer McCallie 3rd, the school's headmaster, said in a statement. "But the financial-aid quota rule is not the proper way to address them."

The school provides need-based financial aid to about 20 percent of its student body, which is about average for independent schools.

Under the current rules, only 14 financial-aid recipients at McCallie can participate in T.S.S.A.A. sports. In addition, if one student on aid plays two sports, he fills two of the 14 slots. The rules also specify that the football team gets four of the 14 slots, the basketball team gets two, the tennis team gets one, and so on.

For Susan Russ, the athletic director at the all-girls Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, that detail meant she had to break some discouraging news to a first-year soccer player: Choose another sport, either volleyball or cross-country.

"I shouldn't even know who's on financial aid at my school," Ms. Russ said.

Laura Brewer, the athletic director at St. Mary's Episcopal School in Memphis, said that in addition to the financial-aid quota rule, another T.S.S.A.A. policy automatically disqualifies students who receive more financial aid than is recommended to them by the School Scholarship Service of Princeton, N.J. "We get hit hard," she said.

Weighing an Advantage

Ed Foster, one of two public school representatives on the T.S.S.A.A. committee who voted against amending the rule, said that not all private schools are affected by it and that more discussion is needed. "There is always tension between public and private schools in terms of financial aid and recruitment," and there is "no easy answer," Mr. Foster, the principal of East Ridge High School in Chattanooga, said.

George Williams, the president of the association's legislative council, said that it is too early to predict the outcome but that the cooperative program between public and private schools could come to an end over the issue.

"Public schools feel that private schools have an advantage in the competition because they are allowed to attract athletes with the enticement of financial aid," said Mr. Williams, the principal of Haywood High School in Brownsville. Mr. Williams said that nonathletes applying to private schools "take a back seat" to athletes.

Ronnie Carter, the executive director of the T.S.S.A.A., said recruiting has been a problem among the association's members.

But Mr. Carter said that the problem is equally prevalent among public schools and that students and parents who shop for schools are often the culprits. "There are 29 different ways to go to a public school other than the one in which you are zoned," he said.

Unfortunately, he and others said, these kinds of problems tend to revolve around who is winning and who is losing.

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