Pay to play? Activity fees can kill student opportunity

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A well-rounded education is about a lot more than literacy and numeracy. Sure, reading and mathematical skills are the foundation, but young people learn about the world and about themselves through a multitude of experiences and activities.

For some, the most valuable lessons for life don’t happen in the classroom but on the ballfield, in the swimming pool or at band practice. That’s why the trend of more school districts charging more money for participation in extracurricular activities, particularly sports, is a concern.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania State Athletic Directors Association surveyed the state’s 500 school districts to determine how many are charging fees and how much. It was the third time the groups did that, and the results showed big changes since the first survey.

In 2010, it found that, of the athletic directors who attended their association’s annual conference, 13 percent said their districts were charging fees for athletics, ranging from $5 to $50 per student, per activity. According to the associations, those figures were well below the national average at the time.

Fast forward to 2013, when 37 percent of the districts responded to a survey on the topic and, of those, 38 percent said they were charging. The average cost for one student in one sport was $89, with $375 the reported maximum, and $450 the highest reported per-family annual fee.

As more districts start charging for sports, and other activities, and as the rates go up, there’s a concern that students will miss out on valuable opportunities because they can’t afford them — adding to the disparities that already exist between wealthy and poor districts for educational programming.

The conundrum, though, is that taxpayers cannot be expected to pay for every activity and experience that may prove beneficial for students. Figuring out the right balance is the trick.

According to this year’s survey, fully 90 percent of school district athletic programs have booster clubs to support them, and their involvement becomes even more important as dollars get tighter. Likewise, the participation of parents and community groups and businesses — as donors and sponsors, for instance — can make a significant difference.

Districts can’t afford to fund every after-school activity, but having students pay to play should not be the only alternative.

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