Western Pa. representative readies legislation to separate private, public school playoffs

Monday, June 10, 2019 | 2:37 PM

The executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference sat down with outspoken public school advocates in February for a frank conversation about the current PIAA playoff system.

Those talks in Harrisburg, facilitated by state Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R-Beaver/Butler/Lawrence), led to the “Parity in Interscholastic Athletics Act” that the Western Pennsylvania legislator plans to announce Tuesday. If enacted, the legislation would create separate playoff brackets for public and nonpublic school teams.

“I think this is historic,” Bernstine said. “Since 1972, these two groups have been on the opposite sides of the issue. … Neither side got 100 percent of what they wanted, but this is no doubt a great solution for all students and student-athletes.”

Bernstine scheduled a news conference for 10 a.m. Tuesday in Harrisburg. The event will be live streamed at RepBernstine.com.

He did not want to describe the legislation in detail until after his news conference but said the bill will separate private and parochial schools into their own bracket. Charter schools will continue to be grouped with traditional public schools.

“Charter schools are in fact public schools,” he said. “With the exception of opening the entire education code and redefining what schools are — which would make it impossible to get legislation passed — there’s really no way (to separate charter schools). You can’t just redefine what schools are in a law.”

He said he is optimistic the legislation can pass the house this session before being sent to the senate and, ultimately, to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk for his signature.

“Any time you’re looking at legislation that brings people together, there’s really nobody who would or should be against this,” Bernstine said.

Laurel superintendent Leonard Rich, one of the public school advocates involved in the process, called the effort “monumental.”

“Aaron has been going back and forth between our group and the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference,” Rich said. “When we were getting close, we went back to Harrisburg (in February) and had all parties at the table, which was huge. We outlined some wants, if you will. We outlined what we can live with, and they did the same. We were able to reach a compromise.”

Rich is scheduled to join Bernstine at the news conference along with Pennsylvania Catholic Conference executive director Eric Failing and Millcreek Township superintendent Bill Hall. Rich and Hall are leaders of the Pennsylvania Athletic Equity Committee, a group of public school advocates who believe private schools hold a competitive advantage over traditional public schools.

In basketball, for example, Hall said the proposed legislation could let the PIAA crown separate public and private champions and then let the two teams play for the overall state championship — a format used elsewhere in the country.

Hall and Rich for months have urged the PIAA to split boundary (traditional public) and nonboundary schools (private, parochial and charter) into separate tournaments. But executive director Bob Lombardi has said consistently the PIAA has no interest in such a split and insisted it would be impossible under state legislation from 1972.

“This is a tribute to the people who were involved in the process,” Bernstine said. “This is about people who are working together to find common ground.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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