Parents, coaches rail against increasing 'pay to play' fees

A backlash brews as parents are asked to write checks for school activities from drama to National Honor Society.

There are new clothes and supplies to buy and piano lessons to schedule.

And for many parents across the country, the first day of school also entails some "hidden" costs. Faced with shrinking budgets, schools are charging for things parents once took for granted: playing football or field hockey, singing in the glee club, or, in at least one case, accepting membership in the National Honor Society.

Charges for extracurricular activities, commonly called "pay to play" fees, are not new, but as more and more schools rely on them, parents and other critics are railing against a system they say denies access to a free public education.

Last month, Massachusetts Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran vowed to explore ways to put an end to fees collected in his state. According to a recent survey by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, some three-quarters of districts here charge extracurricular fees.

Even if the battle proves futile, it is a sign that fees are highly controversial even as they become more common. Yet for parents and schools, the trend for now is to fund activities rather than see them cut.

"The hard work and character building, the memories and friendships made are just too [important] to say it's not worth it," says Tom Spenceley, chairman of Promoting Activities for a Complete Education, which was formed to create a pay-to-play scheme after Fairfield, Ohio, announced it would cancel all extracurricular activities for this academic year.

Pay schemes vary across the country. Some schools charge one-time annual fees, no matter how many clubs a student joins. Others charge per activity. Some charge just for sports, others for any out-of-classroom club. Often fees are supplemental. The Fairfield district charges 100 percent of cost: $630 per high school sport, per child; $260 per club. Fees can be waived if students qualify for free or reduced lunches. In Idaho, decisions are made on an individual basis, for instance if a parent has recently lost a job.

But separating students out by income creates disparities, say critics, and ultimately serves as a deterrent. "What it comes down to is the haves and the have-nots," says Stephen Jefferson, undergraduate adviser of the Sports Management program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "Sports are already elite; with fees they become really elite."

Schools near Joseph Cappuzzello, of Girard, Ohio, have begun implementing fees this year. But the athletic director at Girard High School is "dead against it." "Success is when you have a lot of kids participating. We feel [extracurriculars] are part of a child's makeup," says Mr. Cappuzzello, who has coached at the Ohio school for 30 years. "Pay to play is fundamentally in conflict with that premise." He says it also adds a new dimension to placating angry parent who protest when their child sits on the bench.

In Massachusetts, Finneran will continue to look at ways to provide funding to schools so they can reduce fees. "This is not a pattern that I would want to see accelerate or expand. I'd like to begin to restore things so that those fees go the way of the dinosaurs," the speaker said at a press conference last month.

Finneran is not alone. In South Dakota in 1995, the state attorney general said that charging fees was not permitted under state law, according to Wayne Carney, executive director of the South Dakota High School Activities Association. And a state Supreme Court ruling in California in 1984 ruled that extracurriculars are a district's responsibility.

To many Massachusetts superintendents, Finneran's logic makes sense. "I think [Finneran] is right, schools should be providing these resources," says John Ritchie, superintendent in the Lincoln-Sudbury district. "But if you suddenly make [fees] illegal, programs are going to disappear."

And that is exactly what the community doesn't want. Dr. Ritchie says that when his district faced budget cuts this year, the school canceled the JV ice hockey and gymnastics teams. There was uproar, he says. So they restored the programs and increased fees across the board instead.

Experts say it's a fairly new pattern being repeated largely across suburban schools. A recent USA Today survey of high school sports groups nationwide found that schools in 34 states charge students to play sports.

The system is intended to maintain activities programs, but it also drives down participation. In Fairfield, Ohio, many parents are willing to pay rather than see some programs disappear. Yet Mr. Spenceley, a parent of three, says fall sports participation has fallen by 30 percent. They anticipate the same for school clubs. This, he says, is discouraging, especially when considering the emphasis that colleges place on well-roundedness.

And in small towns where weekend games are an integral part of community life, most families will find a way to keep their child on the roster - no matter the cost. Local politicians aren't likely to rail against fees, either. "You don't want to be the politician responsible for canceling football," says Mike Griffith, a policy analyst at Education Commission of the States.

For many parents, the extra expense is just part of the routine of sending kids to special camps, buying extra uniforms, and paying for travel, says Eric Exline, public information officer for Meridian Joint School District in Idaho. There the school district faced a $3.4 million budget shortfall for this school year and adopted a one-time $50 fee for high school activities, and $25 for middle schoolers. Mr. Exline says they hope to generate close to $200,000, just 10 percent of coaching fees.

Even if the economy picks up, some say fees are unlikely to be rolled back. "Once parents get past the initial shock ... then they become sort of immune to it," says Mr. Griffith. And "once a fee is being charged ... schools tend to stick with it."

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