School districts around the state have been charging fees on kids in sports, music and theatre programs and other activities for years. But some state officials are now raising questions about whether “pay to play” fees are playing fair.
Sen. Cliff Hite (R-Findlay) is a former high school football coach – in fact, he coached Ben Roethlisberger, who’s now the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers. And he’s been leading the charge against fees families pay for students involved in sports, music, drama and other activities with a series of hearings across the state. “I just abhor pay to participate, but so did every single person who was there. I don’t think you’ll find anybody who’ll say they like it,” Hite said. “But some schools had to make a choice between getting rid of teachers or programs and so what I have said, I’m totally against pay to participate, but I don’t want anybody to lose any academic or co-curricular activity.”
And about half of the state’s more than 600 districts have made the decision to require pay to play fees, including some of the wealthiest districts in the state such as Hudson, Olentangy, New Albany and Springboro. Damon Asbury is the former superintendent of the Worthington City Schools, and now works with the groups who actually vote to implement pay to play fees, known collectively as the Ohio School Boards Association. Asbury said no district is swimming in money, and often taxpayers in those well-off districts are very critical of how their money is being spent. “Those districts are relying almost 90% on local property taxes to run their schools. So those taxpayers feel like they’re already being strapped and so many people who don’t have kids engaged in the activities see that as an extra, as a frill – ‘we don’t want to pay for that’,” Asbury said.
Pay to play fees can range from around a hundred dollars to several hundred per child, per activity – Hite says he has a report that a school in his legislative district is charging a thousand dollars per kid. “The theme has always been ‘local control, local control, don’t tell us what to do from the state’. And I am one of those kind of people too. What I’m against is ‘local out of control’,” Hite said. “We got a report in Findlay that one school is charging $1000 per student, per sport, with no cap. Now, where’s that money going? That’s what I want to know too.”
Some school leaders have suggested that state lawmakers have created problems by demanding schools do more, but not offering them more money. Hite says the state has put more money into education in the last few years, and especially into lower-income districts. Asbury says that’s true, but some districts are still catching up because of several years of cuts, and are just now getting back to 2009 funding levels. And Asbury says more information is needed before decisions are made. “This is an area where we need a lot more data than we currently have,” Asbury said. “We only have reports from about half of the school districts as to what they’re actually charging, what the fee structure is. So we need that as well as where’s the money going. I would be surprised if much of it is going anywhere other than to fund the athletic or co-curricular programs.”
And Asbury cautions lawmakers against coming up with a one-size-fits-all solution that all districts must do. “What we would like to see come out of this is a range of options that local boards can consider that are tested with the legislators, with other communities about ‘these are things that could work – which one works best with your district’,” Asbury said.
Hite says he wants flexibility, but also wants to make sure nothing’s set up that encourages more districts to consider pay to play. But he adds: “I’m dead honest when I say I have no idea where we’re going to go with this yet. We have acknowledged that it’s important, all these co-curriculars, and we’ve also acknowledged that some kids are left out, unfortunately, in some places. So there’s the good part, and then there’s the bad part.”
Hite says next month, he’ll put out what a “white paper” with eight or nine options that lawmakers will consider – they’ll range from state involvement to caps on fees to requiring reports on how the fees are being used. And though pay to play fees are a hot topic, Hite says there will be no rush to draw up legislation.
The full conversation with Sen. Hite and Damon Asbury is featured on "The State of Ohio" on PBS stations around the state, and at the link above.