The Clash Between NCLB Transfers and Athletics

by Paul Riede

It’s one of the oldest rules in school athletics, says Dan Washburn, executive director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association: When a high school student transfers from one school to another, he or she must sit out for a year before playing on his new school’s sports teams.

The rule is intended to discourage students from transferring for purely athletic reasons — and to dissuade aggressive coaches from trying to recruit them.

But in an unintended consequence, a provision in the No Child Left Behind law could encourage some student-athletes to transfer for all the wrong reasons.

The law gives students the right to transfer from a school “in need of improvement” to a school with a better academic program. Many officials, including those in Alabama, have ruled that students who transfer under that federal provision should not be penalized by having their athletic eligibility suspended unless it can be proven they are moving only for athletic reasons.

Filling Loopholes
The reasoning appears sound. If the federal government is offering transfers to all the students in an underperforming school, why should athletes be penalized for taking advantage of a better opportunity? But the loophole for students who simply want to get on a top-flight sports team is just as evident, and they can take advantage of it as long as they don’t broadcast their intentions.

Washburn said the loophole has not been a big issue in Alabama since his organization ruled in September 2004 that students using the law to transfer within the same district would not have to sit out a year. And clearly athletics is not the primary reason most students seek transfers. A survey done by the Granite School District in Utah found only 3 percent of high school students who transferred did so mainly for athletic reasons.

But the issue has popped up in several districts across the country. In New York City, the Public Schools Athletic League saw a frenzy of transfers two years ago as high school athletes took advantage of the NCLB provision. The PSAL changed its policy last year and began requiring all transfers to sit out for a year unless they can prove they’ve had a change of address.

The Georgia High School Association tackled the loophole last year, adding a bylaw requiring NCLB transfers to prove academic hardship before being allowed to play immediately at their new schools. If they can’t show they personally suffered academically because of their previous school’s “in need of improvement” status, they have to sit out a year, just like non-NCLB transfers.

Inappropriate Transfers
In Lexington, Ky., three varsity baseball players who transferred under NCLB were told they had to sit out for a year under the rules of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association. The students argued unsuccessfully they were being discriminated against because they were student-athletes.

In Richardson, Texas, the collision between No Child Left Behind and sports eligibility came to a head in 2004 when basketball player Legette Liner transferred under the law. He was ruled ineligible to play immediately at his new school when it was determined he had transferred for athletic reasons. His appeal to the state’s University Interscholastic League was denied.

The association does give special treatment to student-athletes who transfer under NCLB, allowing them to play immediately. But those athletes only get that exemption if they transfer at their first opportunity under the law, UIL Athletic Director Mark Cousins said. And if it can be determined that the transfer is purely for athletic reasons — as it was in Liner’s case — that eligibility is taken away.