When the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, it laid the foundation for the United States of America, a nation that would grow to incorporate 50 individual states over the following two centuries. While all states were annexed as equally valuable members, each featured historical, cultural and economic differences, along with unique governmental structures adopted to best serve their residents.
The NFHS membership is composed of one association in each state plus the District of Columbia for its 51 members. As a federation, the NFHS is a leadership and service organization to these 51 autonomous organizations.
Among the 51 member associations, there are a variety of governance structures. While in a number of states there is more than one organization that governs high school sports, only one organization – the largest and most comprehensive – in each state is a member of the NFHS.
In addition to reviewing the NFHS member state associations, following is information on some of the other governing organizations as well.
States with Multiple Associations
There are 12 states that have more than one governing body for high school sports and activities. Five members of this group – Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia – have additional differences that will be detailed in other sections. This section will focus on Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
When discussing multiple-association states, Iowa is perhaps the most unique in that it splits authority among four unified organizations and is the only state that fundamentally separates activities sponsorship by gender. The Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) – the NFHS member association in the state – oversees activities for boys, while the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union (IGHSAU) handles the girls’ side.
The answer to the obvious question “why the split?” dates to 1925, when the IHSAA elected to end its sponsorship of girls basketball – the only sport offering for girls in Iowa at the time.
Superintendents and administrators who were upset with the IHSAA’s decision banded together to form the IGHSAU and the two organizations have operated separately ever since. The IHSAA and the IGHSAU offer nearly identical sports offerings, with the primary exception being football. Additionally, the IHSAA sponsors both fall and spring golf seasons, while the IGHSAU girls only play during the spring.
“Formally, we have a ‘Joint Committee’ that includes the two executive directors and representative board members from each organization,” said Tom Keating, executive director of the IHSAA. “We meet twice per year and discuss topics that impact both organizations such as eligibility rules, unified sports and sports where we conduct co-ed tournaments (cross country, track and field and bowling).”
The Iowa High School Music Association (IHSMA) and the Iowa High School Speech Association (IHSSA) make up the other half of the four ruling authorities in the state. While each has oversight of its own activities, the IHSMA and IHSSA are actually housed and supported by the IHSAA and IGHSAU, respectively, which reduces cost for the two fine arts organizations.
The four states that share borders in the Southeast – Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina – feature independent schools’ associations in addition to their NFHS members. Originally formed as governing bodies for alternative schools that began in the region during the integration period, the independent associations have since evolved and no longer serve their initial purpose. Three of the four have established affiliate membership with the NFHS.
Along with the NFHS member Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) is the Alabama Independent School Association (AISA). While the AHSAA incorporates 414 schools and offers championships in 26 sports, the AISA has a listed membership of about 80 schools and sponsors about half the number of sports.
In Mississippi and Georgia, both the NFHS member association and the independent associations sponsor athletics and activities. Ironically, the membership of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools includes 23 of its 122 member schools from Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee.
The Georgia High School Association (GHSA) and the Georgia Independent School Association (GISA) are the largest among the four states, with the GHSA’s membership including 464 schools to the GISA’s 165. The GISA was the product of a 1986 merger between two such organizations in the state – the Georgia Association of Independent Schools and the Southeastern Association of Independent Schools.
The South Carolina High School League (SCHSL) features 217 schools and is an athletics-only organization. In contrast, the South Carolina Independent School Association has a relatively large membership considering the state’s land area with 124 schools and sponsors a lengthy list of activities in addition to athletics.
The Pennsylvania Independent School Athletic Association (PAISAA) governs a much smaller group of schools in comparison. While the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association encompasses almost 750 schools and is the fifth-largest in the NFHS’ membership, PAISAA oversees just a collection of 24 schools and provides them with competition in 18 sanctioned sports.
Although there is another organization of schools in Oklahoma, the NFHS member Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA) governs the majority of schools with 20 sponsored sports and three non-athletic activities for its 484 members. The other group – the Heartland Christian Athletic Association, which is an NFHS affiliate member – has grown to incorporate 54 schools across four states, with 20 of them based outside Oklahoma.
In the remaining states with multiple organizations, the additional associations are composed of private schools.
Texas has four separate organizations for private schools in addition to the University Interscholastic League (UIL), the NFHS member organization composed of mainly public schools.
The UIL, which is the second-largest NFHS member organization with 1,479 schools, serves the interests of public schools and open enrollment charter schools in the state.
The UIL technically allows private-school membership, but sees very few applicants due to stringent stipulations. In the case of the UIL, only private schools that are accredited by the Texas Private School Accreditation Commission and do not qualify for any similar organization are eligible to join.
The Texas Christian Athletic League and the Texas Schools Athletic Fellowship are two of the state’s governing bodies for non- UIL member schools, but both service fewer than 70 schools each.
The major associations handling athletics and activities outside of the UIL’s jurisdiction are the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) and the Texas Charter School Academic & Athletic League (TCSAAL), both of which are NFHS affiliate members.
The neighboring North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) and Virginia High School League (VHSL) use similar operations structures in that both allow approved non-boarding, non-public high schools to join their ranks in addition to public schools.
The NCHSAA specifies its exceptions to non-boarding parochial schools and mandates those schools do not recruit or offer athletic scholarships to student-athletes. While there are four such schools in the NCHSAA’s membership, the remaining non-public schools are members of the North Carolina Independent School Athletic Association (NCISAA).
The VHSL sponsors a variety of activities beyond athletics. In addition to being one of 12 NFHS member organizations to sponsor esports, the VHSL offers “Media Championships” through a partnership with the Virginia Association of Journalism Teachers and Advisers. The Media Championships consist of five competitions for student broadcasting, newspaper, online news, magazine and yearbook publications.
In addition to the state’s public schools, the VHSL offers membership to “non-public high schools which agree to follow VHSL By-Laws, Rules and Regulations as amended for them.”
Most non-public schools are members of the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association (VISAA), another NFHS affiliate member. The VISAA, which was established in 1997, guides athletics participation for 92 schools and offers a total of 22 sports – 11 for each gender.
Another athletics-only NFHS member association on the Atlantic Coast – the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) – is divided along public-private lines.
The MPSSAA governs the state’s 198 public schools and provides 24 state championship events, while two separate organizations handle private school athletic offerings for boys and for girls – the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association and the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland, respectively.
States with Middle School Members
There are currently 24 NFHS member state associations that allow middle schools to join their membership, with two of them – the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) and the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) – providing state championship events at the middle school level.
The southern Great Plains region and its bordering states have a particularly strong representation, as associations in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas all welcome middle schools into the fold.
Many states east of the Mississippi River permit middle school members as well, including the TSSAA, Alabama High School Athletic Association, Mississippi High School Activities Association, Florida High School Athletic Association and the South Carolina High School League.
The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association, New York State Public High School Athletic Association, Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission and Vermont Principals’ Association support middle schools in the Northeast, while the Iowa High School Athletic Association, Michigan High School Athletic Association, North Dakota High School Activities Association and the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association join the OHSAA in the Midwest.
A stark contrast can be seen on the other side of the country, as the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association is the only organization west of the Rocky Mountains that offers membership for junior high schools.
The state of Illinois undoubtedly features the nation’s most unique structure for middle school sports and activities.
While the Illinois High School Association does not permit membership for middle schools, those activities for grades 5-8 are exclusively sanctioned by the Illinois Elementary School Association (IESA) – the only organization of its kind in the United States.
“It’s a very unique opportunity for students in Illinois,” said IESA Executive Director Steve Endsley. “We are by far the most actively involved in providing state competition for middle schools in the country.”
Of its 10 sports and five activities offerings, track and field is the most popular sport within the IESA’s operations. Incorporating two classes each within the two grade levels, there are eight respective state championships up for grabs each year at the IESA track and field meet. About 580 schools participated in the 2019 state meet.
There are six other state associations – the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, Maine Principals’ Association, Minnesota State High School League, New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association, South Dakota High School Activities Association and the Utah High School Activities Association – that do not accept middle school members, but allow middle school students to participate in high school state championship events.
States with Fine Arts/Activities Sponsorship
Twenty-five states strictly offer athletics-only programs for their schools and students, while the remaining 26 organizations have programs in performing arts, fine arts or other activities. Organizations such as the UIL, NMAA and VPA are among the states sponsoring the most activities beyond athletics.
In Texas, in addition to common offerings like music, debate, speech and drama, the UIL offers robotics, journalism, spelling and a Science Contest, which challenges participants to understand the significance of current events in biology, chemistry and physics.
New Mexico and Vermont have their own unique activities as well. The NMAA oversees chess, while the VPA sponsors a geography bee.
The Alaska School Activities Association sponsors eight activities and joins the Wyoming High School Activities Association (WHSAA) as organizations that run an all-state art competition/ symposium.
The associations in Illinois, South Dakota and Wyoming join the UIL in offering journalism. As profiled earlier, Virginia offers journalism through a relationship with an external association. Part of that arrangement also includes a film festival, which makes Virginia the only state to provide competition in that area.
The trademark activity of the SDHSAA is its visual arts competition, a massive art contest held every March that bestows state championship awards in 12 categories. Whereas art competitions in Alaska and Wyoming are conducted for individual art entries, the South Dakota visual arts competition crowns state champions in three classes – Class AA, Class A and Class B – on a school basis. The Minnesota State High School League sponsors visual arts as well but ends its awards recognition at the regional level. Minnesota, along with Arizona, offers a robotics competition.
In Kansas, the KSHSAA offers a unique character-building, leadership-training, service program for students called the Kansas Association for Youth.
The Missouri and Oklahoma associations sponsor similar activities – academic bowl, debate, drama, music and speech events – along with the Iowa association, which includes student council on its list rather than academic bowl.
Twelve NFHS member associations sponsor at least one activity other than athletics: Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah and Washington and West Virginia.
This final section profiles five of the most unique state associations in the NFHS’ membership.
The structure of the NFHS member in California – the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) – is specially designed to accommodate the state’s population and land area. Servicing more than 1,600 schools and almost two million students, the CIF governs its constituents through 10 geographic sections.
The Federated Council, which currently consists of 13 superintendents, principals and athletic directors from organizations like the California Coaches Association, California State Athletic Directors Association, Association of California School Administrators and others, sets a portion of the rules for the entire state.
Led by their own commissioners, the sections do retain some autonomy, as they formulate regulations in other areas that fit best with their participants. A notable stipulation is that sections cannot adopt rules that are less restrictive than those of the CIF.
The commissioners from all 10 sections must agree upon rules like these before they are reviewed and approved by the Federated Council. While a slow legislative process is conceivable within the levels of CIF governance, CIF Executive Director Ron Nocetti said a collective mindset among decision-makers helps maintain reasonable timelines.
Like California, a federation format also exists in New York. The key difference between the two states is that only one part of the New York State Federation of Secondary School Athletic Associations (NYSFSSAA) – is a member association within the NFHS. That organization, based in the small upstate town of Latham, is the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA).
NYSPHSAA, an athletics-only association that allows middle school membership, is overseen by two separate committees – the Executive Committee and the Central Committee. One male and one female from each of NYSPHSAA’s 11 geographic sections make up the 22 members of the Executive Committee, which has general day-to-day management of the Association.
The other three entities within the New York federation include the New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association (NYSCHSAA), the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS) and the Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL), an association devoted solely to the public schools of New York City. The NYSCHSAA and NYSAIS are both NFHS affiliate members.
Vermont and Maine
Vermont and Maine are the two NFHS members that govern high school sports and activities through principals’ associations. They are led entirely by high school principals and are committed to furthering the professional development of principals in their states. The VPA’s 15-member executive board, which is made up entirely of active and retired principals and assistant principals, governs seven fall sports, 11 winter sports and six spring sports.
In 2018, the Maine Principals’ Association underwent a pair of significant changes to its leadership structure.
Previously, the executive director oversaw both halves of the MPA – the Interscholastic Division and the Professional Division.
The Interscholastic Division is the area tasked with managing the MPA’s 17 sport programs for its 150-plus high schools, while the Professional Division deals primarily with professional development opportunities for the more than 800 member administrators in the state, and also handles the association’s sponsored activities.
Recently, the MPA has employed a second executive director, giving it one head for each division. Currently, Mike Burnham is the executive director in charge of the Interscholastic Division and Holly Couturier is the executive director for the Professional Division.
Oversight of the Interscholastic Division is a charge of the Interscholastic Management Committee, which has 13 members – nine active principals and four non-voting liaisons from various additional committees.
While similar to Maine and Vermont in some respects, the NFHS member association in Connecticut is part of a structure for high school sports and activities that is truly unique. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) is the entity that reports to the National Federation for athletics, but is just one part of a much larger organization known as the Connecticut Association of Schools (CAS), which also contains separate branches for high school activities and a principals’ association.
The CIAC sponsors 14 boys sports and 13 girls sports, and includes field hockey, ice hockey, swimming and boys volleyball. It is guided by the CIAC Board of Control, which is made up of 40 individuals from various organizations and backgrounds in sport.
The CIAC Board of Control handles the implementation and management of policies for eligibility, transfers and several other issues on the athletics side. For all matters besides eligibility, Board of Control decisions can be appealed all the way up to the CAS Board of Directors – the supreme authority within the CAS conglomerate.
Diversity is a visible and integral element to the makeup of the United States melting pot, and, as showcased in this article, a similar theme runs through the NFHS’ membership. Through various structures, governance systems and provisions, each member association bears a slightly different methodology. However, there is one overarching commonality among them. For the collective 12 million students participating in athletics and activities nationwide, they provide the American Dream.
Nate Perry is coordinator of media relations at the National Federation of State High School Associations.