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High Schools Try to Find a Way Around ‘Pay-To-Play’

October 28, 2008 11:34 AM
by Denis Cummings
Many public high schools are raising money for athletic programs by skirting restrictions on “pay-to-play,” a controversial policy that charges players to join the team.

Atlanta’s Voluntary Pay-To-Play

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Many public high schools in the Atlanta area are raising money through donations and voluntary fees that create a virtual pay-to-play program, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Pay-to-play programs are banned in metro Atlanta, but some high schools still pressure parents of players to pay a fee as high as $500.

One school, Stephenson High, solicited voluntary donations with the following message on the booster club’s Web site: “If your son has made the summer cut for the football team, your dues of $500 [are] due no later than Saturday, August 2nd. No exceptions!”

The message implies that the donation is mandatory, pushing most parents to pay even if they can barely afford to. “I think it’s a little too much,” said one mother, who could pay only $150 of a $450 fee that she thought was mandatory. “I got six kids and I got a mortgage, and everybody’s got a need, but I do pay what I can because Matthew likes the game, and I like to see him doing what he likes.”

Pay-to-play policies may be forbidden in Atlanta, but they are legal and common in much of the country. For many schools, it is the only way that they can afford to provide athletics, especially expensive sports like football, hockey and swimming.

However, critics say that sports and other extracurricular activities should be covered under a free public education. They also say that, though pay-to-play programs may be the most efficient way to fund athletics, they create more problems than they solve.

Background: Pay-to-play controversy

Pay-to-play programs started to become widespread in the early part of this decade, as cash-strapped schools looked for a way to fund their athletic departments. “In tight economic times, school districts have seen fees as a last resort in choosing between offering extracurricular athletic programming and cutting back or not sponsoring such programs at all,” said the Michigan High School Athletic Association in 2004.

Nevertheless, the programs were heavily criticized for a variety of reasons. First, pay-to-play fees discourage some students, primarily those from low-income households, from joining teams and cause drops in participation exceeding one-third in some schools. “When the fees are small, $50 or $100, participation rates don’t go down much,” said Central Michigan University assistant professor Scott Smith. “When fees are high, more than $300, they drop noticeably.”
Some schools offer waivers for families who cannot afford the fee, but University of Maine professors Dianne L. Hoff and Sidney N. Mitchell argue that the waivers come with a social stigma for students. “The social stigma attached to admitting need, particularly during the adolescent years, can create feelings of being ‘devalued, spoiled, or flawed in the eyes of others,’” they write.

A second problem is that parents who do pay a fee often feel that their child has a right to receive playing time regardless of whether the child is good enough. “We have to make an effort to communicate that this is pay-to-participate,” said an Ohio basketball coach. “We’re at the varsity level, and this is still going to be about winning district championships. We’re going to play the players who deserve to play. We have to be upfront with parents because we’re judged on wins and losses.”

The problem is exacerbated under the voluntary donation system seen in Atlanta, where there are players whose parents have paid more than others. “You’ve got parents of the kids who did pay, and they expect more playing time, or they expect the ones that don’t pay not to play,” said an Atlanta football coach to the Journal-Constitution.

The overriding objection to pay-to-play is that public schools should be obligated to provide extracurricular activities free of charge as part of a free education. This argument has led to pay-to-play being outlawed in several states, though other states have deemed it to be legal.

Supporters of pay-to-play argue that sports are “extra and voluntary,” meaning that they do not fall under a school’s free education. Hoff and Mitchell say that this reasoning creates a slippery slope. “Once we head down this slope, the line becomes so murky that any program is vulnerable to becoming fee-based,” they write. “As the number of programs with fees goes up, the greater the risk becomes of further stratifying schools along socioeconomic lines, thereby undermining our entire concept of free public schooling.”
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