Public education isn’t exactly free these days. State budget cuts and failed local levies have left Ohio’s schools desperate to trim costs and still maintain services. That leaves parents paying for what schools can no longer afford.
Half an hour east of Akron you’ll find the small, rural and property poor Field Local School District. Local voters kept rejecting property tax levies, so earlier this month the district tried for an income tax. But, “it failed miserably, 25 for 75 against,” says Field Local Board of Education President Brian Olson.
The school district has not raised new local tax revenue for two decades. In that time, class sizes have grown, subjects were eliminated, busing has been cut back, administrative duties were consolidated, and teachers are now picking up 20 percent of their health insurance costs.
“It’s just like when you’re too hot in the sun, you can only take so many layers off and then there’s nothing left and really that’s what it boiled down to was where do we have to go?” Olson asks.
I visited Field Local schools not long ago. The varsity and J.V. football teams were busy tossing their pigskins, while the cheerleaders practiced their jumps and the band took orders on how to march properly. All these extracurricular activities used to cost students $35. Since the income tax failed, high school sports and other extracurriculars cost $300, and $100 per activity for grade school students.
Families are capped at $2,000, but for some, paying for even one sport is too much. So far, 35 high schoolers have dropped out of fall sports.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association estimates that nearly half of Ohio schools had some form of pay-to-play last year with an average cost of $140. This year, those numbers are expected to climb higher, as Ohio voters are more than twice as likely to say ‘no’ than ‘yes’ to new local taxes.
Sports aren’t the only extracurriculars costing more. Extra fees these days are being added to everything from drama club to marching band.
Stanford University Professor Eric Hanushek says there may be a benefit in all this, as schools refocus on academics instead of Friday night’s football game. He says it is also sparking debate about the goal of public education.
“The real issue that’s come to light now is, ‘Who should pay for this?’ Is that a public responsibility or should parents contribute more.” Hanushek says. “And if the public doesn’t pay for these in the future, we don’t know quite what the impact is going to be.”
But pay-to-play is not the answer for every public school. Last year, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District was facing a $74 million deficit over two years, with a half a million in cuts to extracurricular activities. The district opted to reduce salaries and cut benefits for administrators. More than 600 employees, including hundreds of teachers, were let go in the spring. Those budget cuts keeps sports free for students like Edward Golson, a junior at James Ford Rhodes High School.
“Football is my everything. Dedication, hard work, commitment, stay focused and ready, and just ready to play,” he says. Golson also plays basketball, but his family would not be able to afford any extra fees for the sports. He would, he says, try to make ends meet with the help of an extra job.
Rhodes’ Athletic Director Cheri Dzuro says that’s true for most Cleveland students. She says many of her student athletes get free lunches and free transportation “because there’s no money at home. So if we went to pay-to-play that would be the demise of sports in Cleveland.”
In fact, Roseann Canfora with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District says 100 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. In a district like that, there are other financial strains that come with education.
The City of Cleveland partnered with the Cleveland school district recently to put on a pack-to-school fair. That’s where Alexis Whitmore got a free package of school supplies to help cut down her back-to-school shopping costs. She has three children in Cleveland schools, and she they each get a long list of things they need. But her biggest worry, she says, is the school uniform.
“Some of it is so expensive,” Whitmore says. “You know what they need and you know what you want to get them, but sometimes that’s not what your paycheck says at the end of the week.”
A near record number of Ohio schools are expected to have tax issues on the November ballot. Field Local will be among them – going back to a more traditional property tax levy than the income tax they tried earlier this month. But, if voters say ‘no’ again, the district says it could mean the end of school sports entirely.