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Our view: Move slowly on ‘pay to play’

To a point it makes sense, this talk of charging lower-income students in the Duluth school district a bit more — or charging them at all — to participate in sports and other extracurriculars. More important than the little bit of revenue it’d raise to help support band, speech, theater, football and other school-related activities, requiring a monetary investment encourages a stronger commitment from the kids. Right now too many students who aren’t paying to participate — who have “no skin in the game,” as Duluth East High School Activity Director Shawn Roed said in the News Tribune yesterday — are finding it awfully easy just to walk away, to quit.

Finishing what you started is almost always a good thing, so the Duluth district’s aim seems well-placed in considering a nominal charge of $25 per activity for students whose families’ incomes are so low they qualify for free lunch and $50 for those who qualify for reduced-price lunch. Right now those students pay $0 and $25, respectively, per activity. Kids from wealthier families pay more.

Beyond that point, though, this whole idea of charging students to participate in extracurriculars — in other words, making them “pay to play,” as has become the common term nationally — flies in the face of a message delivered to Duluth this month by Harvard professor and noted author Robert Putnam. With his new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” Putnam spoke at the May 6 Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation annual celebration.

“(Pay to play) is a very bad idea, because what it has meant in very practical terms is that working-class kids … increasingly don’t participate in extracurricular activities because they can’t afford it,” Putnam said in an interview with New Hampshire Public Radio a week after he spoke in Duluth. “We know that soft skills — teamwork and grit and so on — make a difference to kids’ long-term life prospects and are inculcated by taking part in extracurricular activities.”

More and more, only rich kids are gaining those skills, Putnam said, his years of research including data gathered in Duluth. That great American ideal that anyone who works hard can get ahead: not so much anymore, he continued. More and more it depends on your parents’ status and the opportunities they afford you starting out in life.

“Everybody ought to get a fair start. (Everybody ought to be able to) get on the ladder at about the same point.” But they don’t, Putnam said. More and more kids face obstacles in reaching their full potential, and we all pay the price when they underachieve. Pay-to-play policies are becoming more common around the nation and only add to those obstacles, especially for kids of more meager means.

“Dr. Putnam, when he was here, said things like after-school activities and extracurricular activities historically had been a big part of what had given kids from all backgrounds equal access to new opportunities and to responsible adult role models in their lives,” Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation spokesman Rob Karwath told the News Tribune Opinion page yesterday.

“We all know those stories: A kid gets a chance to do something new and finds they’re pretty good at it,” he said. “Any time barriers to that start going up, it’s something we should start thinking more about it. We tend to think only about how are we going to fund (the activity). That’s a real issue. But there’s more to it.”

Unlike in some communities, the Duluth school district, at least for now, is only looking at nominal charges for lower-income students. Even so, some students may not participate as a result. They may never realize the talents inside them. They may be denied being part of a team or ensemble and the positive adult role models who come with it.

“Twenty-five bucks can be a huge chunk of a low-income parent’s check,” Superintendent Bill Gronseth said in yesterday’s story.

It certainly can be. And a big part of the reason the Duluth district can move slowly and with careful, thoughtful deliberation any time it considers increasing activity fees — or any other action with the potential to put up a barrier to kids’ success.

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