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Pay-to-Play Programs

Are they an acceptable solution to our budget woes?
A North Mecklenburg Vikings player.
(Above) A North Mecklenburg Vikings player. The pay-to-play system for Charlotte Mecklenberg (N.C.) Public Schools 2011- 2012 season will allow high school sports but minimal middle school sports. Photo Credit: 2010 Marty Price Photography

One of the controversial issues of late has been the rise of "pay-to-play," in which parents pay user fees so that their children can participate in interscholastic athletics.

Pay-to-play programs are not new, but the dire economy is causing them to grow. Typically, these programs charge students a fee for participating in a particular sport and generally have a cap on the amount one student or one family must pay. Many districts have employed the euphemism "pay-to-participate" as a way of deflecting one of the central issues that seems to crop up with "pay-to-play": Does paying a fee "to play" come with an expectation that a student will in fact "play"?

The conflict between the philosophical position of funding those offerings deemed important to the overall development of children and the very practical problem of generating the requisite funding. Are we willing to assume the risk that many opportunities we value as integral to the education will not be available to all? Are fees even constitutional?


Indeed, in Hartzell v. Connell in 1984, the Supreme Court ruled, "Educational opportunities must be provided for all students without regard to their families' ability or willingness to pay fees.

One of the more interesting aspects of this national debate is that, in all the reports and comments I have read, virtually none of the proponents have been disposed to make a measured argument on any grounds other than need.

Many officials from districts that have adopted the system start the conversation with a disclaimer, indicating that under different conditions, pay-to-play is not what they would choose, and nearly all suggest that pay-to-play is a last-ditch effort to try to save athletic programs. I am not discounting this practical argument, as desperate circumstances often lead to less-than-ideal solutions.

Falling Short

In my view, though, pay-to-play falls short on a number of counts. One of the biggest is the possibility of creating a system of haves and have-nots. Pay-to-play's immediate effects are alarming, as most authorities are saying that implementation of the program is generally followed by a decline in participation. This has created an unusual but economically predictable conundrum, namely, that higher fees may actually lead to lower revenues from pay-to- play programs, thus obviating some of the practical advantage that administrators had anticipated.

The Connecticut Association of Schools has conducted a survey of schools on pay-to-play, and administrators of many schools that have implemented the program and subsequently moved back to the more traditional model cite hidden flaws within the system. Some said it was an accounting nightmare in which many new problems cropped up, not the least of which was parents' expectations that their children would get playing time. Some found that the amount of money raised was less than anticipated and did not outweigh the number of administrative problems that occurred. Many felt that it placed coaches and athletic directors in an awkward position due to expectations by parents that if they pay a fee then they will expect that their children will play in each game. This is not practical in high school sports, especially at the Varsity level and in their role as administrative record-keepers to ensure that all have paid the fee.

If we as school administrators believe that a comprehensive education for some of our students is the best education for all of our students, then we cannot honestly pick and choose which aspects of that education are free and which are not. Pay-to-play is antithetical to the mission of public education and represents shortsighted educational policy that has the potential to be discriminatory.

Interscholastic athletics has long been a source of community pride, a way to help communities develop a common purpose and as an agent for productive social change. Our children have learned a great deal through the joy and disappointment that athletics can deliver. I can't imagine why we would seek to embrace any program that stood in the way of providing these valuable experiences.

Randall Collins served as superintendent of Waterford (Conn.) Public Schools for 19 years and was president of AASA from 2008 to 2009.