Twice, debate teams from Central -- an "academically deficient" inner-city school in the Kansas City, Missouri, district -- have qualified for the prestigious Tournament of Champions at the University of Kentucky, the crowning event on the national high school debate circuit. But both times, the team has been barred from making the early-May trip because of fifty-year-old MSHSAA rules limiting student travel and the length of debate season.
Last week, Central's coach, Jane Rinehart, asked MSHSAA officials to alter the association's rules to allow Missouri kids to compete in the Tournament of Champions. Rinehart also requested that all students be allowed to compete in the National Catholic Forensic League championships, held each Memorial Day weekend on the East Coast. MSHSAA bylaws allow only seniors to compete there.
Meeting in Columbia on May 6, the MSHSAA's Speech and Debate Subcommittee (which is made up of debate coaches from schools around the state) shot down both requests.
Subcommittee members offered several reasons for the rejection. But their primary motivation appeared to be an attempt to prevent schools like Central -- with its sizable debate budget and history of successful fund-raising -- from providing an educational opportunity that kids in, say, Pleasant Hill, couldn't offer.
During the discussion, Bill Jordan, coach at Glendale High School in Springfield, added a point of clarification. "We've said all along that we did not want to encourage something that would be ... "
"Elitist?" asked Randy Pierce, coach at Pattonville High School in suburban St. Louis.
"I was trying to avoid that word," Jordan said.
"That doesn't seem to be fair," Kansas City School Board President Al Mauro later told the Pitch. "If kids want to participate in these programs, they should be able to."
Having read the Pitch's series about Central's struggles with Missouri's high school activities bureaucrats, Mauro plans to continue fighting to change the MSHSAA's outdated rules.
The real issue, Mauro says, is local control. "I think these decisions should be in the hands of the people who have been elected to represent the children and their families." Teachers, parents and students from across the state have fought the rules, which hinder not only debaters but also track athletes and swimmers who want to compete at national-caliber events.
Central did manage to score one win at the May 6 meeting. The MSHSAA subcommittee lifted an obstacle that had stood in the way of Kansas City debaters for nearly five years.
In 1999, Rinehart ended up in trouble with MSHSAA bureaucrats when she took her team to a series of short, after-school debates as part of the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues (or UDL). This, the officials informed her, violated rules limiting the number of tournaments in which kids can compete. At the time, she tried to point out that several schools from suburban St. Louis participated in a similar league with a similar number of afternoon tournaments. But the MSHSAA did not allow any Kansas City schools the same arrangement.
On May 6, the MSHSAA abruptly changed its stance when subcommittee members agreed to grant Rinehart's faxed request for more debating opportunities.
They asked Becky Oakes, the association's top administrator, if they should vote on the matter. Oakes said they wouldn't need to, explaining that the rule exceptions had been in place for the St. Louis schools for more than twenty years. (Yet Oakes signed the disciplinary letters the MSHSAA had sent to Rinehart in 1999.)
Despite having been held back for four years by the MSHSAA's misapplication of its rules, Kansas City's UDL founder, Linda Collier, is ecstatic about the news.
"That's fabulous," she says. "Absolutely we will have more tournaments. Because it allows us to do what we've tried to do all along -- provide more opportunities to kids."