Recruiting is quickly becoming the fourth "R" of education as the Los Angeles Unified School District addresses open enrollment, yet high school coaches itching to compete for students find themselves left on the sideline.
Legislation enacted this year enables students statewide to choose any school in their district as long as space is available. Beginning this week until the end of June, LAUSD students are allowed to apply to the school of their choice.
The choice for high school students is vast: Fifty schools, each putting their best face forward to attract the best and brightest. Schools have rushed to take out ads in newspapers and on cable television. Flyers promoting high schools are raining on junior high campuses.
Open enrollment is making the gentle art of persuasion a vital administrative skill.
Coaches, however, remain bound by California Interscholastic Federation regulations that prohibit recruiting. The rule is designed to ensure that "a student-athlete is making a free and unpressured choice of his or her high school."
Where does information end and pressure begin?
"It might be such a fine line that it is difficult to understand," said Barbara Fiege, City Section athletics commissioner. "I've gotten a lot of calls already from coaches and parents asking about it."
Coaches at Grant High paid $400 recently for a newspaper advertisement promoting the school. The ad focused primarily on the school's academic virtues, but also pointed out recent championship athletic teams and the school's "fully equipped weight room supervised by certified strength and conditioning specialists."
Grant violated no recruiting rules, Fiege said.
"Schools should be proud of their athletic program," she said. "They should let kids know what kind of college players they produce.
"Advertise your program, but don't advertise for ballplayers."
An exception is made for players living within the residential boundaries of a school. High school coaches traditionally visit junior highs that feed their schools, providing information and promoting their programs.
Those visits take on added importance under open enrollment, serving to keep neighborhood players from skipping town.
"I'm selling my program so they don't go somewhere else," said Jeff Engilman, the Sylmar football coach. "I point out our success, point out the number of guys going to college who played at Sylmar.
"I'll take along a couple of my ballplayers who went to that school. The (junior high) kids sit and talk to them."
Coaches fear that a handful of their colleagues will step over Fiege's fine line, however. In fact, some City Section programs have used desegregation programs that have existed for nearly two decades to attract players.
"Open enrollment makes it more of a free-for-all than it already was," said Howard Levine, boys' basketball coach at Grant. "It's easier for coaches who already recruit in an illegal or backhanded way. They have a system in place.
"Nothing can be proven, but somebody goes out and talks to players and gets them. It's always five people removed from the coach, but it's there. These programs have a distinct advantage."
Coaches might feel emboldened because the enforcement of recruiting violations will be more difficult than ever. Fiege said that when her office is presented with evidence of recruiting, the investigation is conducted by administrators at the school.
"Administrators are our first line of defense," she said.
Under guidelines adopted Monday by the City, athletes will have immediate eligibility the first time they transfer from one high school to another within the first 15 days of the school year.
They also are immediately eligible when transferring back to their school of residence. One year of varsity eligibility is lost, however, when an athlete transfers a second time.
Those rules apply to athletes transferring under any of three vehicles offered by the LAUSD: open enrollment, magnet schools and permits with transportation.
"We want one set of guidelines regardless of how someone transfers," Fiege said.
An athlete who transfers must complete a form signed by the principals of both schools stating that no recruiting was involved.
"(The forms) also will allow us to monitor the number of athletes transferring," Fiege said.
Will those numbers become mind-boggling?
"What you are going to see at the onset is excitement and a lot of movement," said Joel Schaeffer, Reseda's football coach. "It will be abused, a lot of kids will try it.
"Then it will run full circle and go back to the way it was. Kids will see the grass isn't always greener at another school."
Wholesale transfers will not occur, Levine believes. Those changing schools, however, often will be key players who have been recruited.
"Key movement, yes, a lot of movement, no," he said, adding that he fears the creation of district super teams that will ruin competitive balance.
Yet competition for students is being encouraged by the district for the first time. As in athletics, there will be winners and losers.
"The idea is to give schools tremendous flexibility and autonomy," said Bill Rivera, a district spokesman. "Open enrollment promotes competition."
And, many coaches believe, it encourages recruiting despite the fact that it remains against the rules.
"This situation is like throwing gasoline on fire," Schaeffer said. "People are tired of enforcing the rules and now they don't have to worry so much."