In wealthy districts, parents should have to pay to have their kids participate in activities

December 13, 2019 — by Michael Wong

Since 1879, California has guaranteed its students a free education under its constitution. For low-income students, removing economic barriers and providing all students with the opportunity to partake in different clubs and activities is important to ensure equality and opportunity.

With the goal of providing a fair education to all, extracurriculars are an inherent component to a good education, and the 1984 Hartzell v. Connell case reaffirmed the fact that schools cannot require payments for pursuits such as sports and music. Demanding a fee on after-school activities effectively sets a premium on the attainability of such enrichments, putting underprivileged students at a disadvantage. 

However, in high-income areas like Saratoga, where the median income is at least double that of the California average, these principles cause more harm than good. Too many parents misuse this law to avoid paying their fair share, sometimes leaving programs struggling.

No amount of pandering to parents can rectify the funding problems that have become common in activities such as sports or speech and debate year after year. In fact, if trends toward lower rates of donations continue, teams and groups will partake in fewer competitions and have reduced access to resources such as bus transportation for sports teams and clinicians for musicians.

As a result, students and parents are constantly bombarded with fundraisers and pleas for donations that are mostly ineffective. Many programs from music to ASB continue to lack funding, in part due to the inundation of donation requests.

While protecting low-income students is the foremost priority, coming at the expense of the extracurriculars themselves would render such equitable actions meaningless. Fair access means nothing if there are no programs. It makes sense for the state to relent on the constraints and allow some districts in wealthy areas to reform the structure of donations for extracurricular activities.

A better model for schools like Saratoga High would allow schools to invite specific students who require aid to apply for it and compel all others to pay mandatory fees in order to participate in sports and other extracurriculars. This way, the few disadvantaged students are still afforded the opportunity to participate, but programs can still function properly without the constant begging and threatening of canceling activities, which has become common rhetoric in the process of drumming up donations.

Still, such solutions have their own pitfalls, such as decreased participation. Having to demonstrate financial need or face the monetary requirements may cause students to quit clubs and activities, affecting their popularity and its year-to-year continuation. 

Balancing the goals of expanding access and maintaining extracurricular programs is a challenging problem, and there are no perfect solutions on the horizon. But until one appears, the only thing that keeps vital programs functioning is a moral obligation that an increasing number of parents are sadly overlooking.

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