Representative Tom McMillen, D-4th, introduced legislation yesterdayasking the nation's school districts to require students participating in extracurricular activities to maintain at least a 2.0 grade-point average.
Under McMillen's proposal, school districts that establish this standard would receive a 10 percent bonus in Chapter 1 grants, money used to help disadvantaged students.
While the bill covers all extracurricular activities at the secondary school level, McMillen clearly puts the emphasis on athletics, which he says has become overemphasized.
"We need a better balance between athletics and academics in America," McMillen said. "Our obsession with sports sends a signal to our kids that we are more concerned about young people's brawn power than their brain power."
McMillen, a former professional basketball player with the Washington Bullets, the first high school student to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated and a former Rhodes scholar, said the imbalance of athletics and academics must be reversed.
"At every grade level," he said, "students should be instilled with the concept that, while athletics is important, the reason you're at school is to learn."
School officials in Anne Arundel County -- from coaches and athletic directors to the chairman
of the school board -- lashed out against the bill yesterday, calling it discriminatory and unfair.
They said it is unfair for students participating in extracurricular activities to be held to a standard higher than what it takes to graduate from highschool, and they decried McMillen for tying the package to Chapter 1funding.
"It is too bad he has chosen that way to give extra money to the system," said Paul Rusko, coordinator for physical educationand athletics for the county schools. "If that additional 10 percentis available, why would they withhold it anyway? The very youngstershe is trying to help he may be hurting."
Andy Borland, athletic director and football coach for Severna Park High School, called McMillen's proposal "discrimination."
"Why is an athlete any different from a normal student?" Borland asked. "I have kids here in my schoolthat as a freshman didn't perform academically. Because they were involved in athletics, they now perform very well academically."
Anne Arundel County currently requires students to maintain a 1.6 grade-point average -- or a "C" -- to participate in extracurricular activities. The school board defeated a proposal by member Tom Twombly thisyear to raise that standard to a 2.0.
Board President Nancy Gist said through a spokeswoman that tying Chapter 1 funds to the minimum GPA requirement was "very inappropriate." Anne Arundel received $4.2 million in Chapter 1 money this past school year.
But McMillen defended using the federal grant money as an incentive. "How do you get to the point where you're not just issuing checks for our school system?" he asked. "We need to make these investments, but you need a return for your investment."
The congressman said he would leave it up to the states to set certain parameters, such as whether students must maintain a 2.0 for the entire year or just while participating intheir activity.
McMillen said he would encourage targeting the additional grant money toward students who are ineligible for extracurricular activities due to the 2.0 GPA standard.
"The kids will respond to how high you make the ladder," McMillen said. "The history on this has been that kids rise to the standard. Those who are on the sidelines can be helped with the bill.
"What is discriminatory is letting our kids go all the way through our school system without making them crack a book and then leaving them out on the curb in the end," the congressman said. "Any coach that allows that ought to be held accountable."
The coaches and athletic directors interviewed all stressed that academics should be put before athletics but said they do not agree with setting minimal standards for participation.
"Students can graduate from high school with a .53 GPA, yet we want kids involved in extracurricular activities to maintain a 2.0," said John Brady, coach of the Annapolis High School basketball team. "It's likeholding those kids hostage. It's the other kids weshould be motivating."
Not everyone, however, is against McMillen's plan. Board member Jo Ann Tollenger said the students need incentives.
"I'm pleased that somebody with his prominence in athletics stood up for it," she said of McMillen's proposal. "When all the cheering is done, what are children left with?"
Prince George's County schools, which already have a minimum 2.0 GPA requirement in place, support McMillen. Spokesman Bonnie Jenkins said the county received $7.6 million this year in Chapter 1 money.
"I hope the bill goes through," Jenkins said. "Generally, our coaches are very pleased. It is an incentive for students to perform well. Students who are not achieving on that minimal level are putting (forth) more energy to meet that 2.0 requirement."