Gov. Dave Heineman said the rest of the state should follow Omaha Public Schools' lead and adopt a 2.0 grade-point eligibility policy for athletes.
He said the change should come through the Nebraska School Activities Association, which regulates athletics and activities for all the state's high schools.
“They can have their discussions, but I can't think of a single good reason why you wouldn't do it,” Heineman told The World-Herald.
The NSAA and other metro-area school districts, however, aren't ready to follow along.
The policy adopted Monday by the OPS school board will require students to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average and pass all classes to participate in sports and other activities — a standard that eclipses state guidelines and is one of the toughest in the state. It will be phased in over three years.
While many schools follow the less-stringent NSAA rules, eligibility policies can vary on a team-by-team basis, with some coaches setting expectations beyond the state minimum.
For example, Doug Woodard, boys basketball coach at Bellevue West, periodically checks students' grades. If a student is performing worse than his potential, he might have to go after school — during practice time — to get help from a teacher.
OPS board President Justin Wayne — the original champion of the 2.0 rule — said other Nebraska school boards are already requesting copies of the new policy.
However, none of the Class A school districts in the metro area or Lincoln are considering following OPS's lead on a districtwide policy at this point, and the head of the NSAA said she hadn't heard widespread support for a new state standard.
“It's not something we're actively pursuing right now,” Millard school board member Mike Kennedy said. “We pulled our numbers and we didn't have a high percentage of students that fell below the 2.0 range.”
Officials in smaller districts such as Elkhorn and Gretna also said changing the eligibility criterion isn't a priority.
Eight percent of all Elkhorn seniors earned below 2.0 last year — a sliver of the student body whose needs can be met without implementing a new policy, spokeswoman Janna Brock said.
“It's irrelevant to us,” said Gretna Superintendent Kevin Riley. Gretna students aren't allowed to practice if they have missing assignments. Grades are monitored on a weekly, even daily basis.
NSAA Executive Director Rhonda Blanford-Green said OPS's decision to raise the bar is admirable, but might not have a ripple effect across Nebraska schools — at least not immediately.
“The NSAA membership has not expressed interest in a GPA standard for eligibility,” she said. “And the membership sets the bylaws, not the eight of us in the office.”
Any move to change state standards would be subject to the organization's legislative process, which includes securing the support of the majority of schools in three of the NSAA's six districts. With a lack of statewide support, Blanford-Green said such decisions are best left to individual districts.
“What may work in Omaha may not work in Mitchell, or Ponca, or Omaha Nation,” she said.
Blanford-Green said she'd be interested in gathering data on how GPA or “no pass-no play” policies worked in other states and districts.
If OPS can prove its new standards produce better grades or higher graduation rates, other schools will jump on board, she said.
“If the pros and cons and statewide outreach proves beneficial for the membership, the membership will gravitate toward that,” she said.
The NSAA requires students to pass four classes to participate in sports and a handful of other extracurricular activities: music, debate, speech, journalism and plays. By that measure, a student could earn four D's and three F's and still suit up.
In lobbying for the GPA and no pass-no play requirement, OPS officials said the NSAA standards didn't go far enough in emphasizing academics over athletics. At least eight states and several large urban districts — such as Washington, D.C., and Cleveland — have already passed 2.0 mandates.
Heineman credited OPS for its “very strong leadership role” on the policy.
“I just think it makes common sense,” he said. “A 2.0 is not an unreasonable standard at all, and it's a positive incentive for students to focus on their work in the classroom.”
He expressed little desire to see a 2.0 requirement mandated by state law, preferring to leave the matter in the hands of NSAA leadership.
Several districts across the nation have adopted 2.0 standards only to reverse course after morale dropped and shrinking teams were forced to forfeit games. Small or rural Nebraska districts could suffer more than OPS schools if half the starting lineup is benched because it can't pull a 2.0.
At OPS, Superintendent Mark Evans has expressed concern that gifted athletes could easily bounce from OPS to other metro schools to dodge the 2.0 requirement.
Westside school board member Scott Hazelrigg said he doubted that would be the case at his district, where the high school is already at capacity.
“That leads to the question 'What is the emphasis?' ” he said. “Is it on athletics or academics? I'd certainly never hope a student or student's family would choose to go somewhere else because it's less rigorous.”
Heineman, too, dismissed arguments that schools or students would suffer unintended consequences.
“Those kids are going to quickly learn and know they have to meet a 2.0 standard, and they'll do it,” he said. “They'd be letting their teammates down if they're not achieving that 2.0 GPA.”
Kennedy, the Millard school board member, said he personally supported tougher standards, and said districts would likely be closely watching as OPS rolls out the new rules.
“I think people should applaud Justin Wayne and the OPS board for making academics a priority,” Kennedy said. “It's something other school districts might need to address, to make sure students are succeeding in the classroom as well as on the field.”