Legislators take aim at controversial ‘pay-to-play’ sports fees

With more Connecticut schools beginning to require students to pay a fee to join sports teams, legislators are seeking some insurances that the neediest students are not priced out.

The State House of Representatives voted 86-55 on Wednesday in favor of a bill that requires districts charging a fee to have a policy in place that exempts students from low-income families.

Of the 116 school districts that responded to legislative researchers’ requests, 44 charge students a fee to join their sports teams. All of the districts that reported having a fee allow the participation fee to be waived or reduced. 

It is unclear whether the remaining 51 districts charge fees, and if they do, whether they waive the costs for needy students.

“I don’t se the problem we are trying to address,” Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, said before the vote.

Republicans state representatives — whom voted unanimously against the bill — contend that providing an exemption for students paying the fee is an “unfunded mandate” on local municipalities.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities testified that oftentimes “the only way to maintain a program is to charge for it. Imposing a mandate such as this may leave local boards of education with the only option of not offering the extracurricular activity at all.”

But with more districts turning to these student fees to close budget deficits, the co-chairman of the Education Committee said lawmakers need to make sure that students from low-income families are not unfairly affected.

“Families that [use an exemption] will be families in dire circumstances,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford. 

Eight years ago, legislative researchers reported that they knew of 29 districts charging students, or one out of every six districts. Today, that number is now one in four districts, with the cost ranging from $25 per sport to $1,450.

With 107,500 students statewide joining a team each year, the state’s superintendents and principals associations are against these fees. 

“Requiring ‘pay-to-play’ is shortsighted educational policy and can be discriminatory to the needy,” the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents position statement reads. “Free public education includes the student’s right to participate in activities offered by a school district.”

Connecticut’s districts are not alone in implementing these fees. The National Assocaition for Secondary School Prinicipals reports that 34 states have these fees.   

The bill now heads to the state Senate for final passage.

See a district-by-district breakdown of student fees here.