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Students Pay To Play*

To play sports, many U.S. students must pay

By Erik Brady and Ray Glier, USA TODAY

FAIRFIELD, Ohio — When the school district in this Cincinnati suburb announced last March it was eliminating extracurricular activities for the coming school year, many students cried — football players and band members alike.

"We were in a world of hurt," says Heather Reed, class president for rising seniors at Fairfield High School. "Can you really be a school if you don't have football or band or Spanish Club?"

One group of parents decided no. They devised a plan that will allow students to play sports and join clubs this fall even if local voters defeat a tax levy Tuesday, as they defeated it by a wide margin in March. But this plan comes at a price. In Reed's case, that price is $1,150 — $630 for tennis and $260 each for National Honor Society and student government. She decided to skip Spanish Club this year.

School sports used to mean paying only with sweat. More and more these days, sports can also mean paying a fee. Fairfield's fees are an extreme example of a national trend toward programs that require public school students to pay if they want to play sports and/or participate in other activities.

USA TODAY surveyed state high school sports associations and found 34 states in which associations say at least some school districts are charging students to play sports. Associations in 16 states plus the District of Columbia say they do not have, or are at least unaware of, schools that charge user fees.

Pay to play, as it is commonly called, is not new. But the number of public schools that impose it is growing, an assertion that state associations base mainly on anecdotal evidence — what they hear informally from schools — because most states do not track how many schools charge fees.

One that does count is Kansas, where pay-to-play districts have grown from 29 to 50 to 55 in the last three years; that's about 18% of the state's 302 school districts.

Michigan has 760 high schools; 558 returned a survey last year and 126 of those said they charged user fees, more than double from a decade ago. Missouri counted for the first time this spring and found 50 high schools with user fees.

Fees typically are $75 to $100 nationally and more often are charged for sports than for clubs and activities. Fees are often waived or reduced for students in federal free or reduced-lunch programs and sometimes are capped at several hundred dollars for families with children in several sports.

Pay-to-play programs began in the 1970s and grew in the '80s and '90s, according to Scott Smith, assistant professor for sports management at Central Michigan University. "Now, as education budgets shrink, more and more schools are trying them," he says. "It's a national phenomenon."

Smith says user fees can be found in city, suburban and rural districts but are most common in suburbs, where parents are accustomed to paying fees for travel soccer and basketball teams.

Smith studied the issue of how much participation rates fall at schools charging user fees."When the fees are small, $50 or $100, participation rates don't go down much," he says. "When fees are high, more than $300, they drop noticeably," sometimes by a third or more. Fairfield officials are anticipating a drop of about 35%.

"When I go to national meetings and listen to people it's clear we're facing a financial crisis with funding high school athletics," says Ronnie Carter, executive director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association. "It has come to a point where some school districts are turning sports back into club sports similar to the system they have in Europe."

Galvanized by issue

About 75 mostly red-shirted students from Fairfield High School joined in a group hug at a backyard barbecue last week. "Take a stand!" they chanted on cue, a plaintive cry in the suburban night.

"Take a stand" is the slogan of Citizens for Fairfield Schools, a group that is urging voters to pass a tax levy that would raise roughly an additional $9 million annually for the schools' operating budget and add $211 in the first year to the property tax bill on a house valued at $100,000.

Citizens for Fairfield Schools is separate from, but philosophically aligned with, Promoting Activities for a Complete Education (PACE), the parent group that put together Fairfield's user-fee system.

Fairfield's pay-to-participate program is unusual in a key respect: It is being run by a parent group rather than by the school district. PACE is attempting to raise $963,000 to pay for activities this school year, including at the middle and elementary school levels; about $100,000 of that is earmarked for students from low-income families who will get reductions of 40%, 60% or 80% of their fees, depending on circumstances.

If the levy passes Tuesday, the school district will pay for extracurricular activities and PACE will refund money. If the levy fails, PACE must give the school board $306,000 on Wednesday for fall sports and marching band. If PACE does not raise enough money, activities for the year could still be canceled. PACE treasurer Mallory Collier reports the organization is $45,000 short of its first payment.

Payments of $226,000 (for clubs and elementary school actitivites, due in September), $235,000 (for winter sports, due in October) and $196,000 (for spring sports, due in January) are yet to come. Collier says it has been a challenge raising the first payment because families want to wait to see what happens Tuesday. "But we can't wait," Collier says, "because we have to have cash in hand the next day."

Students are asked to pay $630 per sport for high school, $430 per sport for middle school, $350 for marching band, $260 for clubs (drama, chess and literary magazine are among 24 offered) and $20 for grades 1 to 6. There is no per-family or per-student cap.

Band director Jill Wilhelm wonders if the drama stage crew will want to pay $260 to work hard: "They're not getting the applause."

Chris Kendall wrote a check this month for $2,540 so his three children can play fall sports and join theater and music groups. Kendall does not agree with the parents who put together the PACE plan. He thinks it gives voters a false sense of security that activities will go on even if they vote no.

A growing trend

Stealth versions of pay to play exist at many high schools around the country. Sometimes they are clothed as transportation fees, equipment fees or donations.

Bill Newsome, baseball and softball coach at Lakeside High School in suburban Atlanta, says parents of players are asked to make a $150 donation to the booster club. "This year we had 100%" who paid, Newsome says. The year before he didn't, as donations are not fees.

Players are also asked to sell outfield banners to local businesses for $300. Parents of players who do not sell banners are asked to write an additional $100 check.

Some schools in California ask for donations because students cannot be required to pay fees there. A 1984 state Supreme Court ruling deemed student activities to be part of a district's education program. Fees are also banned in South Dakota, where the state attorney general in 1995 cited a state statute that says "privileges of the public schools shall be free."

Parents who pay for their children to play sometimes believe that should guarantee playing time. The Michigan High School Athletic Association puts out a primer on fees that says: "All of the conditions of being a team member apply as if the fee did not exist — and that includes playing time."

Phil Curtin, former football coach at Oakmont Regional High School in Massachusetts, says he resigned before the 2003 season partly because of the pressures of pay to play. Oakmont was 8-3 in 2000 with 50 players. The team's record slipped to 4-7 and 3-8 in the next two seasons as the number of players dwindled to half. "I would probably still be there" if not for pay to play, Curtin says.

Oakmont athletics directorBryan Brown says fees as high as $1,000 for football and $750 for baseball were introduced in 2001-02. Fees were lowered the next year to $550 for one sport and $300 for each additional one. The school allows partial refunds for injuries. Brown says a girl who was hurt two games into the soccer season got 80% of her money back.

Calvin Davis, director of sports for Chicago Public Schools, says if fees were charged to poor athletes in his district, some would quit teams or leave school. "You would see it affect attendance, grade-point average, discipline referrals would be up, and the drop-out rate would increase," Davis says. "We would lose half our kids."

Gary Matthews, executive director of the Alaska School Activities Association, says pay to play is a necessity for many schools in his state.Without it, he says, "a lot of our programs would have gone away years ago."

Passions run high

In Fairfield, city of warring acronyms, Arnold Engel is founder of CARE — Citizens for Accountability and Results in Education. The group has succeeded in helping to vote down three levies since 2001.

Engel says he opposes a rise in taxes because he believes the school district does not spend its money responsibly. Superintendent Robert Farrell disputes Engel's charge. "We're fiscally responsible," he says. "We spend 14% less than the state average" per-pupil.

Engel says he does not oppose the pay-to-participate plan. "The only reason to cut sports and extracurriculars is to blackmail the public to pass the levy," he says. Engel's son Josh, a rising sophomore, was in the band last school year. Engel has not paid $350 for his son to return to the band, but he says that has to do with scheduling issues rather than cost.

Lee Maloney, another CARE member, says he plans to pay $630 for his son Jeff, a rising senior, to run track in the spring: "I'd much rather pay it than raise taxes and force senior citizens to move out."

Engel keeps a video camera on a tripod in his living room aimed at the "Vote No" sign in his front yard. He got footage of people throwing torn-up signs on his lawn from a sport-utility vehicle at about 3:30 a.m. recently, which then ran on some Cincinnati TV newscasts.

Engel and three other anti-levy voters met in Engel's living room to plot strategy on the same night that the 75 or so Fairfield students gathered for hot dogs and soft drinks. The students were addressed by Dan Murray, co-chair of Citizens for Fairfield Schools. "We need everyone to stay positive and take the high road," Murray said.

Running back Kenton Sneed was among the students on hand. He appreciates the work his father and other members of PACE have put in to save his senior season. "I look up to my father," Kenton says, "because he's looking out for us."

Leon Sneed says his organization's fondest hope is that Tuesday's vote puts it out of business. If not, Sneed is happy to have helped form a safety net for school sports.

Football is "the glue that joins this community together," he says. "The different clubs and sports are made of the same kind of glue."

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