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Parents, coaches rail against increasing 'pay to play' fees

A backlash brews as parents are asked to write checks for school activities from drama to National Honor Society.

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There are new clothes and supplies to buy and piano lessons to schedule.

And for many parents across the country, the first day of school also entails some "hidden" costs. Faced with shrinking budgets, schools are charging for things parents once took for granted: playing football or field hockey, singing in the glee club, or, in at least one case, accepting membership in the National Honor Society.

Charges for extracurricular activities, commonly called "pay to play" fees, are not new, but as more and more schools rely on them, parents and other critics are railing against a system they say denies access to a free public education.

Last month, Massachusetts Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran vowed to explore ways to put an end to fees collected in his state. According to a recent survey by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, some three-quarters of districts here charge extracurricular fees.

Even if the battle proves futile, it is a sign that fees are highly controversial even as they become more common. Yet for parents and schools, the trend for now is to fund activities rather than see them cut.

"The hard work and character building, the memories and friendships made are just too [important] to say it's not worth it," says Tom Spenceley, chairman of Promoting Activities for a Complete Education, which was formed to create a pay-to-play scheme after Fairfield, Ohio, announced it would cancel all extracurricular activities for this academic year.

Pay schemes vary across the country. Some schools charge one-time annual fees, no matter how many clubs a student joins. Others charge per activity. Some charge just for sports, others for any out-of-classroom club. Often fees are supplemental. The Fairfield district charges 100 percent of cost: $630 per high school sport, per child; $260 per club. Fees can be waived if students qualify for free or reduced lunches. In Idaho, decisions are made on an individual basis, for instance if a parent has recently lost a job.

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