Participation fees for high school sports are a reasonable way for communities to fund programs without placing too high of a burden on taxpayers.

These “pay-to-play” systems come with a caveat, however.

Increasing the cost of playing sports without a doubt keeps some low-income students from participating, at a time in their lives when they should be trying new things, and at a time in our country when kids are less active than ever.

What’s more, officials are finding it hard to resist using fees beyond athletics, risking the creation of an a la carte-style education where only students with means can take full advantage of what is offered through public schools.

Those developments have the potential to widen the gap between students based on their financial resources, and both must be avoided by Maine schools.

MORE AND MORE

The last 40 years of public education have been defined by the demand for more: more classes, more clubs, more services and more sports.

For much of that time, those demands have been accompanied by more money.

Since the 2008 economic crash, however, pressure on state budgets and property taxpayers has produced sharp cuts in the money sent to schools.

That has led, correctly, to calls to restore education funding, but also to prioritize spending and cut items of lower importance from the budget.

And despite its clear benefits, high school athletics cannot be a priority when teaching positions are going unfilled.

Sports enjoys an outsized popularity in most communities, and it certainly plays an important role. But it’s not more important than anything offered in a classroom.

FEES GAIN POPULARITY

According to a recent report by the Maine Sunday Telegram, 23 of the 29 schools in southern Maine’s two major sports conferences charge some sort of fee.

The fees range from $10 per season to $175 for most teams, more for hockey and other sports that require practice and game space to be rented.

Nationally, a 2011 survey found that 61 percent of high schools charged some sort of fee, and all indications are that the numbers have continued to increase since then.

At the same time, private youth sports leagues are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and expensive.

The result? According to a survey by the University of Michigan, only 30 percent of students from families with less than $60,000 in annual income play organized sports, compared to 51 percent of their higher-income peers.

Twenty percent of children ages 6-17 did not participate in a sport at all in 2014, and that number has risen every year in the past six. There were 2.6 million fewer kids playing sports in 2013 than in 2008, a change most apparent at the lower income levels.

MAKING WAIVERS WORK

Some schools now have a sliding scale based on income. Almost all say that it is policy to not keep any student from playing a sport for lack of money.

But there is evidence that students do not feel comfortable asking for a reduced or waived fee. According to the Michigan poll, only 6 percent of athletes received a waiver, a number one would expect to be higher.

Still, athletic directors in Maine said they haven’t seen a drop in overall participation since the institution of fees.

Schools should continue to track participation rates in order to make sure some students are not being denied an opportunity. Perhaps the Maine Principals’ Association can help gather data, and distribute information about what fee structures work best.

Schools also should be encouraged to pursue sponsorships, increased ticket sales, fundraisers and other creative methods for raising outside funds.

DON’T SKIMP ON SCHOOLS

Fundraising is appropriate when discussing sports equipment and uniforms, but not pencils and paper.

Unfortunately, that’s becoming the case, as schools throughout the country are charging participation fees not only for sports and extracurricular activities, but also for the use of technology and laboratories, supplies, and even classes like music, art and foreign language.

That’s the easy way out when officials are trying to craft a budget that keeps educational offerings level while placating taxpayers. But it’s not the right way.

It is clear students need a well-rounded education to compete in the 21st century economy. We cannot skimp on schools, nor can we make them more inequitable.

Fees may be a reasonable way to sustain athletic programs, but they are no way to fund education.

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