Education Law

"Pay-to-Play" at Schools Has Some Crying "Foul!"

Does your elementary or high school student want to play on the school's football team, march in the school band, or sing with the glee club? If so, you may need to dip into your wallet.


In August 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) put several public school districts in California on notice that they may be breaking the law. For example, in a letter to Poway Unified School District (PUSD) in San Diego, the ACLU questioned PUSD's practice of charging students to participate in school sports and other extracurricular activities. Examples of the fees include $50 to $500 to register for marching band; $30 coaching fee for football players; and cheerleading fees of at least $1,691.

This type of fee arrangement is popularly known as pay-to-play. Students pay extra fees to play sports or other extracurricular activities at school, primarily to help pay for the costs of running the activities. It's not a new idea or phenomenon, either. There are reports of pay-to-play programs going back to 2004 and earlier.

Is It Legal?

As a general rule, pay-to-play is perfectly legal, but it may depend on where the school is located and how the plan is operated. California and the ACLU give us a good example.

As pointed out by the ACLU, under a specific part (Article IX, § 10) of the California Constitution and a 1984 decision from the state's highest court, the state's public schools can't require students to pay fees to participate in sports or other activities offered. The keys here are "offered" and "require." There's no law -state or federal - that requires schools to provide sports and extracurricular activities. In California, if public schools choose to do so, they can't make students pay-to-play.

However, it's not illegal in California, or probably any other state with a similar law, to ask students and their parents to help pay for the sports and activities. On the other hand, it would be illegal to refuse a student to participate if she or her parents don't pay the voluntary fee.

The state of the economy in 2010, and perhaps beyond, may force schools to drop athletics and extracurriculars if voluntary payments from families or private contributions and donations don't trickle in. Schools need to be careful of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, however. Schools receiving federal aid - like most if not all public schools - have to equal programs and activities for male and female students. So, to save money, a school generally can't eliminate the girls basketball team but keep the boys' team.

What about private schools? Private schools are a different matter altogether. As a general rule, because they're not part of the "free public education" scheme, they don't have to follow many of the laws public schools have to follow. It's very common for private schools to have pay-to-play programs. And unless they receive federal funds, they don't have to worry about Title IX, either.

What You Can Do

You have some options if your school has, or is thinking about starting, a pay-to-play plan:

  • First, check the laws in your area to see if your state is like California and has specific rules about pay-to-play
  • Consider other activities. There are probably other opportunities in your neighborhood for your child to play a sport or an instrument. You may end up paying more than the school pay-to-play fees, though
  • Organize a group of parents and coaches to solicit donations and contributions from community businesses to fund the extracurricular activities
  • Go to the next school board meeting and talk about asking the taxpayers to pass a levy to pay for the extracurricular activities

Sports and extracurricular activities are often important parts our students academic careers. If everyone works together and tries to understand each others'' points of view - everything can't be free and many families have tight budgets, too - a solution can be found that makes everyone happy.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can our public schools require students and parents to pay-to-play?
  • Is a school legally required to refund pay-to-play fees if a student gets cut from a team or decides not to continue with an extracurricular activity?
  • Are pay-to-play fees tax deductible?
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