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High school competition

2004 June 18
by Skip Sauer

USA Today has a set of stories by Erik Brady and MaryJo Sylwester on competition in high school sports. The cover story focuses on the relation between school wealth – more precisely, income in the surrounding area – and success at winning state championships. Not surprisingly, wealthier schools win more titles. Unless increases in wealth are associated with changes in tastes, the greater opportunities afforded would give wealthier schools an advantage.

Two articles accompany the main story. One examines Ballard High in Louisville, a “wealthy” school that wins more than its share of championships. A second takes brief note of three relatively poor schools that won multiple championships in the sample.

How does wealth produce championships in a public education system which mitigates differences in school expenditures? My sense is that a form of social capital is responsible for the correlation between wealth and success. Parents in the wealthier districts spend more time monitoring their kids participation, and donate more cash to the cause. Facilities are better as a result. Their kids are expected to participate in extra training at camps in the summer, so their skills and experience increase. In addition, two critical ingredients are mobile, and will tend to locate in wealthier districts, all else constant. Better coaches will seek complentary inputs (facilities, support, and talent), as will better athletes, rich or poor: “many top athletes are recognized at an early age and recruited to private schools and travel programs for kids as young as 8 and their expenses are taken care of.”*

Finally, a puzzler: school wealth is a more important factor in girls sports. My hunch is that the social capital explanation is relevant here too. Whereas pre-teen boys commonly play sports on their own, girls tend to play only in organized leagues (soccer & softball). You’ll find more of these leagues in wealthier areas, giving these girls a head start which pays off in high school. Just a hunch though.

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*A somewhat odd quote, in that top athletes are well known to be recruited to public schools as well.

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