A South Jersey state Assemblyman said Tuesday he plans to introduce a bill to require students in the state Interdistrict Public School Choice program to play sports at their hometown high school rather than at the choice high school, unless their hometown school does not offer the sport.

Choice school advocates called the proposal discriminatory and said they will fight the bill.

The bill proposed by Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, addresses concerns that some students are applying to choice high schools for athletic rather than academic reasons.

“The purpose of the public school choice program was to increase educational opportunities for students, but the law has had the unintended consequence of allowing some scholastic sports teams to achieve dominance by eliminating the competitive balance between schools,” Burzichelli said in statement.

Burzichelli noted choice schools are able to draw student athletes from a wide region that extends well beyond the region of their competitors.

Valarie Smith, cq co-director of the New Jersey Interdistrict Public School Choice Association said school officials complaining about losing athletes should instead be asking why students want to leave.

“They are not complaining about losing students, they are complaining about losing athletes,” she said. She said high school is a holistic, all-encompassing experience, and singling out athletes is discriminatory and unfair.

“These people are more concerned about their sports programs than they are about giving these students choice,” she said.

New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Executive Director Steven J. Timko issued a statement saying that since choice began, NJSIAA and its members have articulated concern about the program’s potential consequences related to interscholastic sports, including the formation of what some have called “super teams.”

Under current rules effective Sept. 1, 2013, a student who transfers into a choice district must wait 30 days or half of the maximum number of games in the sport, whichever is less, before becoming eligible to participate on an interscholastic sports team in the choice district.

“We look forward to working with all stakeholders, including Assemblyman Burzichelli, to help address this situation,” Timko said.

There are athletes on local high school teams who came in through the choice program. Local high schools that accept choice students include Ocean City, Mainland Regional, Hammonton, Lower Cape May Regional and Cumberland Regional. Starting in September, Atlantic City, Vineland, Pinelands Regional and Middle Township will also take choice students.

School officials said the new cap on choice enrollment has already made it more difficult to get in, and since all students are chosen through a lottery, there is no special advantage for athletes.

Ocean City High School has a few student athletes in the choice program, including runner Bridget Flynn and swimmer Noel Styer. Ocean City’s school choice coordinator Eric Ortolf said athletes make up just a few of the 166 choice students.

“I don’t think students are applying here just for (sports),” he said.

Mike Gatley, athletic director at Mainland Regional High School, and president of the Cape-Atlantic League said he understands there are concerns around the state that students may be applying to choice schools for more than academic reasons.

But, he said, there are likely to be unintended consequences if Burzichelli’s bill becomes law because it will be very difficult for students to make it back to their hometown high school for practices and games.

“Will they have to be bused?” he asked. “It’s hard for choice parents now to handle the travel.”

Gatley said he’s lost athletes because Mainland does not have a late bus and students had no way to get home.

Smith and Gatley also questioned why the bill would not apply to all extracurricular activities, including clubs, band and academic teams.

“You’re telling a student they can play in the band, but not play soccer,” Gatley said.

Burzichelli said in one media report that he might consider expanding the bill  to include all extracurricular activities.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241

Started at The Press in 1993 as an Ocean County reporter. Moved to the copy desk in 1994 until taking over as editor of At The Shore in 1995. Became deputy sports editor in 2004 and was promoted to sports editor in 2007.