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The public-private school debate

First, from ESPN this morning, Erik Kuselias interviewing the Maine high school football champions:

Kuselias: So what are you guys trying to do to get Maine to be like the football hotbeds like Texas, California and New Jersey?

Huh? When Erik Kuselias thinks of high school football, he thinks of Texas, California and New Jersey before Florida?

Wow, okay.

I had an enlightening conversation with Columbus coach Chris Merritt this afternoon concerning some points brought up in a story I wrote yesterday about summer camps in South Florida. Yesterday, as I sometimes do, I went off on a bit of a tangent within the story about the different amount of preparation that public school programs get during the summer versus private schools. Schools like Columbus tend to work through the summer while most public schools don't really get going until later; late July or August.

Coach Merritt took umbrage with the assertion, pointing out that his Explorers adhere to all the same rules and regulations as their public counterparts under the GMAC and FHSAA.

"We have to follow all those rules just like everyone else, so we do compete on a level playing field," he said. "To say that we have an unfair advantage is misinformed, it's wrong."

He went on to make a good point about another part of the article; when I talk about the way Columbus came roaring out of the gates last year against public school teams. Columbus went on to finish the regular season undefeated, and what coach Merritt had too much class to mention was that the reason they beat those teams so badly is that Columbus was way better than them. Example: Later in the season against Killian, Columbus beat the Cougars by two points, and I think if you talked to anyone who saw that game they would say that it had nothing to do with summer practices or fair or unfair advantages. Columbus was two points better than Killian.

Yesterday, I spoke with Hialeah coach Marc Berman, and he said as much. "Later on in the season, I think it all evens out."

Merritt went on to point out that private school is not some wonderland refuge for all talented athletes. He pointed out that some athletes who proved not to be up for the discipline and high standards have transferred out of private schools all over the county, opting to go elsewhere, many times public schools.

"Not every kid is cut out to wear a tie and go to an all-boys school," he said. Good point.

I remember when I played in high school (Cary High School, Cary, NC), we didn't play against the private schools because they had their own rules. They brought in kids from New Jersey and Virginia, even California and worked their teams like pro franchises. We public schoolers all started in the middle of July with two-a-days, and schools like Columbus weren't on our schedule. The GMAC and Dade County public schools have found a way to make this work by subjecting everyone to the same rules.

The question, like most things in life, seems to come down to finances. Now it's pretty hard to get anyone on the phone at the school district this time of year, but Miami-Dade Public Schools is the one governing body that athletic teams don't share with the private schools. Each time a kid steps on a field with pads on, schools are liable for them. Insurance isn't cheap, and from what I've been able to gather, the disconnect happens when administrators at public schools have to put moritoriums on practices for cost reasons. Schools, especially in our troubled county and state, just cannot afford to keep the kids on the field in early summer.

Is that Columbus' fault? Of course not. And it's not as if Merritt's staff is coaching from an ivory tower. The "coaches waiting to work with the kids" at Columbus that I mention in the story spend a lot of hours of their own time doing so. Actually, public schools with stronger booster programs and more rabid fan bases are sometimes able to defray these costs as well, so it's technically not even a "public-private" debate.

I agree with a lot of points coach Merritt made to me, but a part of me also thinks we can't pretend there is no difference. It may not be an advantage, per se, but it is definitely a circumstance. So what do you think? I know we have a cross-section of public- and private-school readers on this blog, so I trust your opinions. Tell us below in the comments section. And keep an eye out, you can bet we will be touching on this subject again as the summer weeks move us closer to the kickoff of regular season.