More school systems charge students for activities

`Pay-to-play' approach sparking lawsuits

March 19, 2003|By Karen Brandon | Karen Brandon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ESCONDIDO, Calif. - To help pay the $2,500 yearly cost of being a cheerleader at one Orange County high school, one newly elected freshman sold $800 worth of candy, baby-sat, worked at a smoothie stand and occasionally helped her mother on catering jobs. Her mother, a single parent working full-time and struggling to make ends meet, helped at more than a dozen of the school's bingo fund-raisers to "volunteer away" her daughter's bill.

But with the fee still not fully paid, only the threat of a lawsuit finally convinced school officials to give the student her cheerleading uniform, just moments before the fall football game against the school's chief rival began, the mother said. The woman said that time and time again she was forced to provide humiliating details of her financial predicament to various school officials, who benched her daughter at a school assembly because of the unpaid bill and pointedly asked, "Why do you have your daughter in a program you can't afford?"

"I am totally sympathetic to the budget problems of the schools, but my daughter was punished because we are poor," said the mother, who asked that her name not be used.

The incident, which led the school to begin a close evaluation of the charges associated with extracurricular activities, reflects an issue emerging in school districts nationwide over whether, and how much, students should pay to play.

Faced with the threat of sharp budget cutbacks linked to fiscal crises affecting almost all states, schools are increasingly asking their students to pay fees to participate in extracurricular activities that in many cases were free a generation ago. In school districts where fees long have been commonplace, the prices are rising, and in some regions, increased fees are leading to decreased participation in activities such as sports, music and drama.

"Most administrators and coaches are opposed to [fees], but it comes down to having the fees so the kids can keep playing or eliminate the sport," said Heidi Gehrman, citing preliminary findings from a survey on fees she is conducting for the National Federation of State High School Associations.

What is considered legal varies widely from state to state, but in some corners of the country the fees are sparking lawsuits.

"You're trying to define what is the scope of a free education," said Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Board Association. "Every state has looked to their own history to see what their constitution means."

In Illinois, the practice is legal, and commonplace in a substantial minority of districts, said Jim Flynn, assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association.

Suits against two Nebraska school districts led state lawmakers to craft legislation last year outlining conditions under which fees may be charged. In California, one of six states that ban the fees, a conservative legal organization is successfully challenging extracurricular charges used by school districts despite a 1984 state Supreme Court ruling expressly prohibiting them as a violation of the state's commitment to provide a free public education. One suit is pending against the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest district.

"Many districts, unfortunately, think they are above the law," said Gary Kreep, executive of the U.S. Justice Foundation in Escondido, which is leading the charge against the fees.

The increasing use of fees comes amid an explosion of the array of schools' extracurricular activities. Many high school programs include badminton, ice hockey, riflery and lacrosse teams, and improvisational theater. Title IX, intended to give girls parity in sports, has expanded the number of female athletic teams. At some schools, traditional activities have become more ambitious, adding more elaborate accoutrements and taking on more travel for competitions. The Orange County cheerleaders, for example, hired an outside choreographer, purchased new uniforms, warm-up suits and duffel bags, and traveled to Hawaii.

Catherine Lhamon, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles, said she has begun to see school districts that apply fees to programs in their curriculum to cover science lab costs, art supplies or items for sewing.

"I think often schools implement fees from the best of intentions, that if we charge $5 for everyone we'll be able to do this or that," she said. "It's rarely because they want to make kids feel bad about being poor, but it has that effect."

Though more Illinois schools are using fees as a way to "keep programs afloat," the IHSA's Flynn said he did not think participation had waned.

"If you want to play ball, you'll find a way," he said. "There's nothing that prohibits friends, neighbors, other families from pooling their resources."

Karen Brandon is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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