A new Texas law that could double the amount of academic credit high-school athletes receive for playing sports is stoking a long-standing debate in the Lone Star State about whether athletics should count the same as schoolwork.
Texas is unusual in that high-school sports aren't completely extracurricular. The state has long allowed students who are members of sports teams to take one athletics class during a normal school day, a period that can be filled with anything from watching game films and weight lifting to sitting in study hall.
Celina High School football players go through conditioning drills earlier this month. A new Texas law lets members of high-school sports teams get more academic credit for such things as weightlifting.
The state formerly permitted high schoolers to apply only two credits — or two years' worth — of athletics classes toward the 26 credits needed to graduate. But a law passed by the Texas legislature in May effectively increased the number of such credits that can apply toward the degree to four.
Coaches and athletic directors welcomed the change, which they had sought from the Texas Board of Education for the past two years.
"We think it's a good idea to allow parents and kids to have some flexibility," said Robert Young, athletic director at Klein Independent School District.
The Texas State Teachers Association also supported the increase in athletics credits, saying it gives students more opportunities to take classes that interest them the most.
Others have misgivings. "There are only so many hours in a school day," said Terri Leo, a member of the state board of education. "This really equates to two less academic credits a student will then be taking."
Leo voted against the change when the state board approved it in March on a preliminary vote of 11-4.
Ken Mercer, a school-board member who voted for the change, said sports provide good leadership and teamwork lessons. "If this is what keeps kids in school, then we should support it," he said.
The board shares jurisdiction on graduation requirements with the legislature and put the issue aside in deference to lawmakers, but will take another look at it in September.
The role of sports in Texas public schools has been a contentious subject for decades, with many educators believing too much emphasis is placed on athletics. The debate led to the legislature's passage of a "No Pass, No Play" measure in 1984, which required students to receive passing grades in all their classes before they could participate in extracurricular activities, including sports.
Coaches and athletic directors have been complaining for years that students weren't getting credit for all their athletics courses. They argued that there was no comparable limit on marching band or ROTC military-training classes, which can earn students four years of credit.
Craig Agnew, a parent and coach in Brenham, began lobbying the state board to change the standards after his son found it difficult to schedule all the courses he needed for graduation in addition to athletics classes he wanted to take.
"Without going to summer school, there simply wasn't enough room in the normal school schedule to do both," Agnew said.
The new law increases the credits students can apply toward a degree in many elective subjects and in theory would allow them to get credit for up to seven athletics courses. But the state governing body for high-school sports currently limits students to only four such classes.