The unregulated, All-Star-driven world of open enrollment loopholes in Texas high school football – The Dallas Morning News

The moment high school football players win a state championship is often the ultimate highlight since they first pulled on pads and stepped onto local fields for peewee games.

It also represents the culmination of what has become an increasingly competitive and fluid youth football landscape, fueled, in part, by certain school district rules that have helped circumvent the traditional definition of high school sports.

Open enrollment policies allow students to attend campuses without living in those schools boundaries.

They broaden the options and programs from which parents and students can choose, while also drawing more enrollment and subsequently more state funding for those school systems.

Open enrollment has a reputation for gridiron payoff, too.

The policies can serve as a potential loophole for the formation of All Star-laden football teams through an unregulated, high-pressure, win-driven approach to coax students as early as seventh grade to transfer into open enrollment team pipelines and annually reload rosters with elite talent.

In a survey of Dallas-area head football coaches, 37 of 40 respondents (92.5%) said they believe open enrollment policies affect competitive balance.

A look at this years University Interscholastic League Class 5A and 6A state semifinalists supports the assertion.

Six of the 16 schools including Cedar Hill, Southlake Carroll and Austin Westlake playing for titles this weekend have open enrollment or allow out-of-district transfers.

Interviews with more than two dozen local coaches, players, parents and administrators back the view, too.

Some called the process a version of amateur free agency. Others likened it to the wild West.

None had a concrete idea for how the UIL should, or could, curb the phenomenon few coaches openly denounce but many quietly malign.

Coaches in the Metroplex are in a really hard situation, said a local head coach whose ISD borders open enrollment districts, speaking anonymously to not jeopardize future job opportunities. Youre not supposed to talk to kids that dont live in your attendance zone. Youre not supposed to recruit. Youre not supposed to have people do it for you.

But youre also supposed to win, so youre put in this terrible predicament where youre like, Am I going to run my program with integrity and do the best I can with the kids that walk through my building? Or am I going to dip my hand into relationships and talk to people when I shouldnt and dishonor the UIL rules, but then also allow myself to win football games on Friday night?

Sixteen of the 43 independent school districts in the Dallas area with Class 5A or 6A sports have tuition-free open enrollment policies, according to DMN research.

A few, such as Class 6A Division I state finalist Southlake Carroll, are finite. Carroll ISDs policy extends just to students who live in the city limits of Southlake but outside the districts boundaries.

Others, such as Class 6A Division II state finalist Cedar Hill and football juggernauts Duncanville and DeSoto, have limitations based on space and previous academic performance.

On the surface, open enrollment appears to clash with the residency rule in the UILs eligibility guidelines, which state an athlete must live with a parent or guardian inside a schools district attendance zone. A caveat in the UILs constitution, however, has helped open enrollment align with athletics-based moves.

If athletes transfer into an open enrollment district without moving into the attendance zone, they cannot play varsity sports for a year.

Regardless of residence, theyll have free range to play once theyd been continuously enrolled in and regularly attending the school for at least the previous calendar year, per UIL rules.

Cue the youth movement.

If a player transfers in or before ninth grade, a season of sub-varsity football isnt a hindrance. Rather, its expected at most large UIL programs.

Youth teams and middle school games have become prime ground for generating potential moves.

Games during fall and spring Saturdays at facilities across the area can be all-day affairs. Theres pre- and post-game tailgating, online Facebook groups, and attendance from people who want to scout upcoming prospects.

When Tasha McWright watched Dallas Lions games years ago, shed recognize high school coaches in the crowd, wowed by her pre-teen son, Kendrick Blackshire, now an Alabama linebacker signee who transferred from Mesquite Horn to Duncanville in 2019 and who was always the biggest and strongest on the field.

Steve Virgil, a former little league coach in Mesquite, learned the nuances of surrogates, such as a friend, another parent or a third-party coach, initiating introductions with high school coaches to avoid direct recruiting, a UIL violation.

Jaylin Nelson, a quarterback who transferred from DeSoto to Duncanville in 2015, remembers his prowess as a First Baptist Academy middle schooler garnered attention from the staff at an open enrollment UIL school. He took a tour of their facilities and said he received free tickets to a major playoff game, though he never enrolled.

You dont want to stay still and waste your high school career, Nelson said. Its not like college. You cant redshirt, so you have to make the best opportunity when you can.

Not every player in an open enrollment program faces this situation.

Theres no UIL penalty for moving residences and submitting a Previous Athletic Participation Form (PAPF) that grants a clean release from the previous school. Open enrollment districts with multiple high schools, such as Garland ISD and Arlington ISD, show little correlation to on-field dominance.

Five of nine coaches from open enrollment schools who responded to The News survey said they didnt believe their teams benefited from the policies.

Some other people will probably disagree with me, but I dont think it is, DeSoto coach Claude Mathis said, noting the districts collegiate magnet program as a primary open enrollment draw.

Recent history, however, shows some perennial state championship contenders offer open enrollment.

Galena Park North Shore and Duncanville, opponents in the 2018 and 2019 Class 6A Division I championships and state semifinalists this season, have open enrollment.

So does Cedar Hill, which will play in its fourth title game since 2012 on Saturday against Katy.

Eanes ISD, which includes Westlake, aiming for its second consecutive state championship Saturday versus Carroll, accepts transfers from non-district applicants.

At least one Class 6A football state championships participant in each season since 2012 has come from an open enrollment district.

I dont really know if there is an advantage to it or not, Cedar Hill coach Carlos Lynn said. I love a home-grown kid. I love a kid thats been through our program, thats been through that [football] boot camp for four years. Now, will I take somebody else? Yes.

+++++

Based on responses for 40 head coaches of Dallas-area football teams:

Do you think open enrollment policies affect competitive balance in football?

Yes: 37

No: 3

If you coach in an open enrollment district, do you think your football program benefits?

Yes: 4

No: 5

If you coach in a closed enrollment district, have you had a player transfer into an open district?

Yes: 25

No: 7

Do you think programs in districts with open enrollment directly and/or indirectly recruit?

Yes: 38

No: 2

Open enrollment isnt new.

For years, school districts in Texas have allowed transfers in some fashion.

Historically, most school systems have granted transfer requests from children of their employees, regardless of where they lived.

Some districts, such as Dallas ISD, have created a patchwork of enrollment policies geared toward speciality or charter campuses, allowing out-of-district students a spot in those schools if seats arent filled by in-district students.

Others allow intradistrict transfers, allowing students living in the districts attendance boundaries to transfer to any district campus, provided there is space. In Garland, for example, all students in transition years moving from elementary to middle school and middle to high school are required to rank their choice of campus for the next school year.

As the school choice movement has exploded over the past three decades, so has the number of schools across the country that allow for out-of-district transfers. Since Minnesota passed a state law in 1988 requiring districts to permit them, 20 other states have adopted laws that, in some way, authorize out-of-district transfers. School choice proponents have touted this change, arguing that such policies provide low-income families options they normally couldnt access.

Texas law permits but doesnt mandate interdistrict transfers. And increasingly, said Kevin Brown the executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators districts around the state have moved to allow them.

A combination of deep funding cuts from the 2008 recession and rising redistribution of funds away from property-rich districts left school systems looking for ways to shore up their budgets, Brown said.

Additionally, the dynamic growth of open enrollment charter operators with more than 700 campuses opening statewide over the past decade, most in metro areas exacerbated those funding woes, he said.

State funding for public schools is tied to enrollment. A significant dip in enrollment means a tighter budget, with layoffs and even school closures looming on the horizon if those numbers dont rebound.

The districts that were losing several millions a year were looking for ways to close that gap in funding, and one way to do that is to increase the number of students, Brown said.

Alfred Ray, Duncanvilles superintendent from 2007 to 2015, gave another reason for his districts policy shift in the late 2000s: an aging population.

Young families who came to the community over the previous two decades stayed in their homes after their children had graduated, said Ray, now a vice president at Stephens, a privately held financial services firm.

They decided it was a great place to live, and now, those same homes werent producing as many students as they used to, he said.

Ray saw the innovative approach that one of his mentors, former Grand Prairie ISD superintendent Susan Simpson Hull, had used with an aging elementary campus that was on the verge of closure. The school was transformed into an open enrollment school of choice, and its enrollment rebounded.

Within three or four years, over the late 2000s and early 2010s, a swath of neighboring districts in Tarrant and southern Dallas counties Grand Prairie, Duncanville, DeSoto, Cedar Hill and Lancaster moved to more permissive transfer policies.

Ray disagreed that charter schools were a driving factor for the change saying that it has become vogue to put the blame on operators. He also dismissed that an open enrollment policy would be much of a bump for a districts bottom line.

Duncanvilles enrollment like Cedar Hill and DeSoto has not grown in recent years, cresting in 2012-13 with 13,238 students.

With students transferring in and out of the district freely, I think it all comes out in the wash, Ray said.

Whats driving open enrollment, he added, is a concerted effort to match what parents and students want with campuses that can meet those demands.

Over the years, Ray said, he interviewed close to 4,000 parents on why they chose a particular campus, and their reasons were as different as the parents were, ranging from smaller class sizes and STEM offerings to neighborhood proximity and school leadership.

Jamey Harrison, the UILs deputy director, said that people including coaches and athletic directors can apply a very myopic lens to a much larger education issue, overlooking how academic rationales play into the broader school-choice and transfer landscape.

Too often, Harrison said, the lens is focused on specific sports, areas and schools such as Class 4A boys basketball, where large urban districts such as Dallas and Houston have powerhouse programs that often dominate more rural, single-high school districts.

Its missing the broader issue that the parents right to choose where their kid goes to school is very much a part of Texas public education, and will continue to be as my expectation, he said.

While open enrollment policies have occasionally been a point of discussion at Legislative Council meetings, Harrison said there hasnt been any movement to change the UILs existing two-pronged approach.

We have a very good system that is working, but it is not a perfect system, he said. But yes, I do believe it is appropriately addressing the issue.

Related reading: Read The Dallas Morning News full, 3-part series that explores the size, athletics success and cost of Allen High School.

Frequent movement in major metro areas, regardless of policy, has long been part of Texas high school football culture.

After all, Kyler Murray, arguably the greatest player in Texas high school history, moved from Lewisville to Allen, a closed enrollment district, before becoming a three-time state champion and going on to win a Heisman Trophy at the University of Oklahoma and becoming a top NFL draft pick.

The value and pursuit of a college scholarship has become more competitive, highly publicized on social media and especially important for players in families with lower incomes. The lure to play for teams with a championship pedigree, heralded coaches and a consistent NCAA pipeline is strong.

Programs of that quality with open enrollment have a simpler pathway for transfer athletes to pursue.

Kaidon Salter, who will start at quarterback for Cedar Hill on Saturday, played his freshman season at DeSoto and his sophomore year at Bishop Lynch. He said he received recruiting attention from all D-FW schools in this area before enrolling at Cedar Hill for his junior and senior seasons.

I feel like that was the best spot for me, Salter said. It had a little bit to do with me living in Cedar Hill already and not wanting to deal with the UIL and the whole address thing.

The flipside can leave schools without open enrollment, or with less football tradition, working to convince current players that they should stay.

Districts upgrade facilities and coaches attend sub-varsity games and let future players serve as ball boys. When Spencer Gilbert became head coach at Carter, which borders Duncanville and DeSoto ISDs, for example, he started visiting his middle school feeders regularly.

The approach to squashing a sports-focused transfer, whether to an open or closed enrollment school, is clear.

The UILs PAPF gives coaches of outgoing transfers the opportunity to assert whether conflict, recruiting, suspension or athletic purposes influenced the move and to trigger a district executive committee hearing to review eligibility.

But coaches sometimes hesitate to hamper a students future, even at their teams expense. Some operate under an unspoken rule to not fight transfer departures so others do not object to their transfer arrivals.

Twenty-five of the 32 coaches The News surveyed from closed enrollment districts said theyd lost a player to open enrollment transfer, but just 12 said theyd noted an issue on the PAPF.

Criticism of the UILs process falls flat if coaches and administrators dont flag discrepancies.

The people who are most impacted ... are the ones who are making the initial decision, Harrison said, If they choose not to take the time to properly investigate, thats a choice theyve made.

Decisions dont just fall to leadership.

As a sophomore quarterback in 2012, Chason Virgil garnered frequent interest from open enrollment teams when West Mesquites coach left and his success as an eventual four-year varsity starter was apparent.

Virgils dad, Steve, was willing to drive Chason to school every day if a transfer could generate more recruiting exposure and playoff experience.

Virgils mom, Patrice, wasnt. If his talent was genuine, she thought, a change was unnecessary.

Virgil, now an assistant coach at North Crowley, didnt transfer. But hes often wondered about his potential had he joined a powerhouse.

Looking back on it, I probably shouldve made that move, he said. That school wouldve given me better opportunities to leave a bigger legacy.

Of the 43 school districts in the Dallas area with Class 6A and 5A schools, more than a dozen offer broad open-enrollment policies. Others, however, offer more selective policies. A look at Dallas-area districts and their forms of open enrollment.

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The unregulated, All-Star-driven world of open enrollment loopholes in Texas high school football - The Dallas Morning News

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