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Aaron Regunberg: Pay-to-play a loser for RI students

Monday, February 04, 2013


If Rhode Island lawmakers have their way, students may soon have to pay to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities.

Do you value your kid’s extracurricular opportunities? Well, then, you’d better be willing to pony up, according to Senator DiPalma and Representatives Finn, Ruggerio and Abney, who have introduced bills in the RI State Legislature that would allow school districts to charge ‘pay-to-play’ fees for participation in school activities.

Cash Strapped Districts

The rationale is that cash-strapped districts should have the flexibility to assess “reasonable fees” for students’ participation in such areas as “athletics, internships, work experiences, band, chorus, acting or theater groups, cheerleading, dancing, and other activities sponsored or authorized by a public school district for the benefit of, and participation by students within said school district and which activities are outside the ambit of traditional educational instruction.”

These pay-to-play policies have been tried in a number of states, where they have, predictably, led to significant reductions in program participation rates and fees that are sometimes prohibitively expensive. Last year the Wall Street Journal published a profile of the Dombi family in Medina, Ohio, a district whose pay-to-play system ended up costing the family’s four children $4,446.50 in fees for one year of school.

In other states, such fees remain prohibited. The legal issue hinges on what we think should be included in the right to a free public education. Rhode Island’s State Constitution guarantees this right, saying, “The diffusion of knowledge, as well as of virtue among the people, being essential to the preservation of their rights and liberties, it shall be the duty of the general assembly to promote public schools.” So are extracurricular activities a part of this free school system to which the law entitles us?

That’s where the research comes in, and the answer—from an educational and child development point of view, at least—seems clear. The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), in a review of the research, found a great deal of academic and social benefits of student activities. “Students who participate in co-curricular activities achieve higher grades, are more motivated, have fewer discipline problems, are less likely to drop out of school, and are more likely to graduate and apply to college. The benefits are particularly significant for at risk students, for whom co-curricular activities have been found to reduce juvenile crime, provide a sense of connectedness to the school, increase self-esteem, and create positive social networks they might otherwise not have. Activities can represent an important way to engage students who are at risk of dropping out.” In fact, the NASSP chooses to refer to these programs as co-curricular rather than extra-curricular, arguing that they provide students with important developmental opportunities not always afforded during regular school time and “should be seen as aligned with the mission of the school or the district.”

When I think back to my high school experience, I find it hard to disagree with this. Some of the most worthwhile learning experiences I had took place in extracurricular programs, and I’d go so far as to bet that many readers are in the same position. In fact, even the proposed bill includes language to this effect, saying, “The availability of extracurricular activities for students to participate in, including but not limited to clubs, bands, and sports, is a vital and integral part of the educational process.”

Violation of student's rights

Yet if school activities are comparable in importance to the school program as academic classes, then there seems to be a very strong case that this pay-to-play proposal violates students’ constitutional right to a free public education. And regardless of the legal questions, we know it could significantly harm the quality of students’ educational experiences.

I understand that the logic behind this proposal does make a certain kind of sense, and I have absolutely no doubt that the bill’s sponsors mean well. If districts are getting crushed and are looking for programs to eliminate, extracurricular activities are all too often the first under the axe. Rather than allowing programs to get cut completely, the reasoning goes, why not at least keep them available for those able and willing to pay?

But, like so many proposals that at first have the ring of logic about them, this policy is targeting the wrong problem. The reason that cities and towns are being forced to eliminate more and more school activities is that our state has cut millions of dollars in aid to cities and towns over the last several years. The answer, then, should not be to shift those costs onto individual students and their families, ensuring that many young Rhode Islanders will lose out on these important development and educational opportunities—it should be to reverse those damaging cuts, and state legislators who believe in the importance of extracurricular activities would be much better served to focus their energies on holding the state responsible for its duties rather than working to pin these financial burdens on students.


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