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When Extracurricular Means Extra Costs Districts Resorting to 'Pay-To-Play' Option

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Making the squad of an interscholastic team at Michigan's Lapeer High School requires more than just athletic prowess--students must also pay $275 each.

The stiff, pay-to-play policy became necessary, school officials say, after Lapeer voters in October rejected for a second time a property-tax boost that would have benefited the district.

Since then, the school system has had to fire 30 teachers, close its libraries, and trim course offerings. The $275 student charge per high-school sports team--and the $175 fee for junior-high teams--is one more sign of austerity, Lapeer officials say.

And they are not alone.

In many financially hard-pressed districts across the country, officials are struggling to maintain services once thought to be part and parcel of a free public education. And some, like those in Lapeer, have decided that charging fees--for opportunities ranging from band membership to enrichment courses--offers the best way to balance the books.

Because the decision to levy a fee is almost always made at the local level, no one can say exactly how widespread the practice is. Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that fees are commonly linked with budgetary problems and thus could become a more widely utilized option among districts coping with revenue uncertainties in an unsettled economic climate.

But for many observers, such public-school fee schedules raise serious equity questions.

"Education is a common good that people have paid for," says Michael W. Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University. "If you start charging for pieces of it, like a consumer good, that's very different."

"It's not the philosophy we started public education under," he argues.

In times of budgetary distress, districts have often asked families to pay nominal charges to support existing school programs. More recently, however, students have been asked to pay much higher sums for programs and services that are almost entirely underwritten by these fees.

And while most schools have established a formal procedure by which children from poorer families may request waivers, there is evidence to suggest that overall participation rates noticably drop after a fee is imposed. For example:

In Lapeer, 427 students in the district joined an interscholastic team this fall; last year, when students had to pay $85 to play high-school sports, 641 participated.

William DesJardins, the district's director of athletics, health, and safety, says that the cost rise has encouraged some less-talented players to forgo joining a team.

"Would you pay $275 to sit on the bench?" he asks, adding that "it's hard to tell parents who show up on a Friday night why their kid isn't playing as much as John Doe from down the street, although they are paying as much."

After voters in Aurora, Colo., rejected a school-levy proposal late last year, school officials eliminated middle- and high-school gifted-education programs, and cut back on art, music, and physical-education programs for elementary-school students.

At the same time, the district greatly expanded an after-school enrichment program for elementary-school students that is supported almost entirely by fees. For approximately $30, students can take six-week courses in a variety of subject areas, including the arts and music. Parents are responsible for their children's transportation.

Last year, when instrumental music was included in the regular curriculum, 459 4th-grade students were enrolled. This year, 65 are participating in the fee-supported class.

Although school officials last month pledged to partially restore some of the cuts made to the elementary-school program next September, they say they plan to continue the after-school enrichment classes.

In Ravenna, Ohio, where voters have rejected three proposals to raise property taxes, students must pay $225 to play interscholastic football, soccer, or volleyball. They have to pay $75 to play golf or participate in the marching band, for which they can receive academic credit. If not enough students sign up for an activity, it is canceled.

Last year, when students were not charged for activities, about 95 students played football; this year, about 60 play. Soccer participation dropped from 48 students to 14, and volleyball attracted only 11 students this year, down from 26 last year.

"You're in our business to help kids, but this does not help kids," observes David McBee, the high-school athletic director.

Because state law does not require Oregon schools to provide transportation for students, officials in Redmond eliminated all schoolbus service after voters rejected a school-levy in September.

Instead, parents can form groups to rent a 48-seat school bus, and hire a driver who was formerly employed by the district. The first such route was organized last month; parents paid a total of $1,200 to transport students for one month.

Richard Slavin, Redmond's superintendent, estimates that between 10 and 15 students in the 3,900-student district have not been attending school because of the transportation cut-off.

School officials who have implemented the fee-based programs acknowledge that they are flawed, but stress that inadequate revenues and taxpayer resistance to higher millage levies have forced them to make a series of painful choices.

In Redmond, says Mr. Slavin, the district had to choose between providing transportation or eliminating up to 30 teaching positions.

"I would rather have busing," he says. "I would rather have athletics. But they are not nearly as important as the regular academic program."

Officials elsewhere echo this sentiment, noting that they view the fee-supported programs as only a temporary solution. Many also say that they hope local booster clubs will be able to fill some of the gaps in their athletic offerings.

"It's a Band-Aid approach to holding together an athletic program," admits Lapeer's Mr. DesJardins. "When you start cutting into the regular education program, obviously athletics go first."

Some also argue that charging fees for school activities and services is consistent with the national movement towards user fees.

Michael Fair, a representative in the South Carolina legislature, says that the "public generally responds better to user taxes" than property-tax increases.

During the last legislative session, Mr. Fair sponsored a successful amendment to the state's appropriations bill that allows South Carolina districts to charge fees for school materials, such as workbooks and "incidentals."

The amendment also stipulates that districts that elect to charge such fees must make provisions for children from poorer families.

"I would prefer to spend an extra $50 [in fees] than spend it on the property tax," says Mr. Fair. "I know it's going for my daughter, instead of for building a school on the other side of the county."

"Is it fair to tax everybody for things that students take?" adds Evelyn Blackwelder, deputy executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association. "It's not popular, [and] neither is the property tax popular."

Some observers note that the unpopularity of school-related revenue measures among elderly and non-parent voters--two groups whose proportion in the population is growing--can already be seen in the statistical breakdown of some unsuccessful bond and levy proposals.

But critics of fee-supported school programs argue that the substantial equity questions they raise cannot be ignored.

Kent McGuire, a senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, notes that "the larger the percentage of resources that don't come from the tax base, the better the chance that you are creating equity problems."

Public schools have not "historically" engaged in practices that "exposed those who don't have an ability to pay," he asserts.

Though he says he does not object to the "judicious" use of fees based upon income, Mr. McGuire argues that fee schedules can also undermine state finance-equity laws.

"The public increasingly has a taste for certain types of services, but an unwillingness to pay for them," he says. "What we need to re-establish is what we need these schools to do and what it will cost."

Others note that districts that charge fees without creating special provisions for children from poorer families may be risking a lawsuit.

Barbara Pletz, a policy analyst for the Ohio School Boards Association, says of one district's decision to charge fees with no waiver program, "If I was a parent, I would jump all over this. I would make this my test case."

Even waiver procedures, Ms. Pletz adds, may not guarantee that all poor children have the opportunity to participate. "What do you do about the child who's too poor to pay and too embarrassed to ask?" she asks.

To others, the questions fee schedules raise about what should or should not be included in the curriculum are paramount. The issue brings to the fore, they say, the role that so-called "frills" play in education.

"If [activities] are educational in value, which nobody disputes, then they should be part of the regular program," says Brice F. Durbin, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations. "They teach you things you can't learn in the classroom, but things we want our children to learn."

Although states vary widely in their policies governing school fees, virtually all allow districts to charge for participation in extracurricular activities. Less common, but still permissible in some states, are fees for certain types of school supplies and books, and for transportation.

The Georgia Board of Education, for example, last year adopted a policy barring districts from charging students for tuition or supplies for state-funded courses, but permitting charges for extracurricular activities. Officials say the policy clarifies a requirement in the state's 1985 education-reform act that districts provide a free education for all students.

Before the new policy, state officials say, some districts were charging students lab fees and were asking for voluntary contributions for supplies.

Policies in some states, including Washington and Minnesota, do not require districts to pay special attention to the needs of children from poorer families who cannot afford fees. These omissions, officials there acknowledge, may be subject to legal challenges.

"I think if this was challenged in this state because we don't have a waiver [provision], it's wide open as to what the court would decide," says Ted Suss, administrator for the Minnesota Board of Education.

The courts have sent a mixed message to districts that have enacted fee schedules. Although a California Supreme Court decision in 1984 struck down a district's plan to charge students for extracurricular activities, courts in Michigan, Idaho, and other states have upheld similar programs.

State courts have also been divided on whether districts may charge students for textbooks and other supplies.

And legal opinions have yet to resolve completely the issue of whether districts are required to provide free transportation for students.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a North Dakota district's program of charging students for school-bus service. But the California Supreme Court in September upheld an appellate court's decision that fee schedules for school transportation violated the state's constitution.

The California high court requested, however, that the case be "depublished," meaning it cannot be used as a legal precedent.

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