California has 1,522 high schools, more than any other state.
Of that figure, 92 percent are public schools that draw students from neighborhood boundaries. The other 8 percent consist of private schools that have no enrollment boundaries and can welcome students who live down the street or in the next county.
While small in number, private schools' ability to attract many elite athletes away from public schools has slanted the playing field.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the CIF State Basketball Championships this weekend at Power Balance Pavilion.
Fifteen of the 20 schools competing for boys and girls championships five divisions each are private institutions. Sheldon High, hailing from the Elk Grove Unified District, will play tonight in the large-school boys Division I title game.
It's a trend that has become all too familiar and frustrating among public school administrators, coaches and athletes. It's unfair, they say, and there is talk about a change.
"It's the haves and have-nots, and we have to figure something out," CIF executive director Marie Ishida said from her Sacramento office.
Most private schools have better and bigger facilities, better equipment and less teaching and coaching turnover than public schools, many of which struggle to field teams and retain coaches.
While top private school boys basketball teams fly across the country playing in the best national tournaments before regular-season games, most public schools bus their teams to regional tournaments.
"Heck no, I don't think it's fair that those schools can get kids from anywhere while we pretty much play with whoever shows up from the neighborhood," Center boys coach Ray Gagnon said before his team lost to Sacred Heart Cathedral of San Francisco in the CIF Northern California Regional semifinals. "But that's the way it is. We have no say in the matter. We just go and play and hope to get an upset."
What's the alternative?
High school athletics in Texas and New York have separate state championships for public and private schools. So why not California?
It's easier said than done, said Ishida. There have been annual discussions of an Open Division, in which the power programs mostly private schools would compete in one division separate from the public schools. The state's Federated Council will vote on an Open Division in May.
"It's something that's been talked about, but we'd have to get a change from status quo," Ishida said.
In short, the CIF would have to get the majority vote from the 64-member Federated Council, the state's governing body, to even move forward. Those voters consist of high school superintendents, principals, vice principals and athletic directors.
"I don't make the rules as the executive director I administer them. And do I have influence? Yes," Ishida said. "Personally, I don't know if it'd pass. The concern for so many is a once-in-a-lifetime team getting stuck in the open division and never winning."
Private school coaches won't apologize for their good fortune. Mater Dei, one of the nation's top prep athletic programs out of Santa Ana, plays Sheldon tonight for a shot at a record ninth state championship.
For years, Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight's teams played in an old gym with a seating capacity of only 750. Mater Dei now has a state-of-the-art facility that seats more than 3,000.
McKnight admits that his 30-year journey as Mater Dei's coach has been "a fairy tale with a lot of work and a lot of rewards."
"Overall, in Division I, it's mostly public schools in basketball," McKnight said. "I really think everyone wins their share."
Sheldon, meanwhile, aims to become the region's first boys team to win a large-school title in the 31-year history of the event.
Sheldon coach Joey Rollings says his team can't get caught up in the private school vs. public school debate.
"There are so many private schools (dominating in basketball), and I know people think it's not fair, but all you can do is try to go out and beat them," said Rollings, whose team consists of players from Sheldon's neighborhood.
Mitch Stephens, a columnist-reporter for the national website maxpreps.com, said he and scores of fans prefer the existing state playoff format.
"Is it an even playing field? Of course not," Stephens said. "The private schools that's the way of the world. The wealthy have more choices. So it's the challenge of the middle class, the public school, to be better organized, to rally as one, to buy into community and school spirit to combat those with built-in advantages.
"If you divide the two, there's no Hoosiers, there's no Oak Ridge (beating) Mater Dei (in 2005)."
Public school coaches and the CIF also are concerned about the high number of transfers. Each of the five boys Southern California champions has a star transfer, making the rich a bit richer.
Mater Dei features senior forward Xavier Johnson, who came from public school Chaparral of Temecula. Junior wing Elijah Brown chose Mater Dei when his father, Mike Brown, became the Los Angeles Lakers' head coach. One transfer can dramatically alter the landscape of a team and a region.
"That's the norm, and it's going to get worse," Sylmar High coach Bort Escoto told the Los Angeles Times this week. "The days of neighborhood kids are over. You can't win with just neighborhood kids because neighborhood kids don't stay anymore."
The CIF will attempt to block any transfer that is athletically motivated. The organization might impose a 30-day or one-year "sit out" rule.
The CIF has an annual budget of $800,000 for legal costs. Mater Dei is taking the CIF to court over what the school considers unfair handling of Monarchs transfers.
Ishida said the very idea of a lawsuit "makes it all the more reprehensible."