Harford's pay-to-play fee needs to go away [Commentary]

With another new season of high school sports approaching in Harford County, we're also facing a second year of charging our public schools students a $50 participation fee for each sport, each season.

While the idea of using this money to help fund school operations, such as interscholastic athletics, might make sense on the surface, it also sends the wrong message to the kids who should be in school to get a rudimentary education, not to worry about if their parents are going to come up with an extra 50 bucks every 10 weeks, so they can play a sport.

It indeed costs a lot of money to run these school sports programs and none of them produces sufficient revenue to even approach breaking even. But in Harford County, where we constantly hear a lot of poor-mouthing when it comes to our public schools, pay-to-play is akin to taking out someone's brain to repair an ingrown toenail. It's overkill taken to its highest form of idiocy.

Participation in athletics at the high school level should be treated a privilege, one you earn by showing up to class, behaving yourself and making some effort to learn. Not everyone can be expected to be a straight A student, nor is everyone going to be a varsity athlete. Still, the first job of the schools is to educate by helping kids become literate and learn some basic life skills. Anything extracurricular should be secondary to that mission, and the only cost that should come with it is satisfactory performance in the classroom.

When you stamp a barcode on participation in a sport, you in turn devalue why kids are supposed to be in school in the first place. You aren't rewarding them for a job well done in the classroom but are basically saying, "We don't have enough money coming in and since athletics is our biggest non-academic activity, we're going to tax it to make a point, and you will help us do it."

And, what point are you making? That you can't manage, so you'll use sports as a bargaining chip. Hostage taking anyone?

It seems like that point hasn't gone over very well with the people who control the money, judging from the way the county executive and county council have reacted to the big increases that were requested from school officials in their last two budgets. But let's also not forget that those same county leaders have made hundreds of millions of yours and my tax dollars available to build new high schools with state-of-the art athletic facilities and to install synthetic turf fields at the other schools.

While it's true new county leaders are coming next year who profess different priorities when it comes to funding education, that's akin to saying the Chicago Cubs also will win the World Series next year, when next millennium is more truthful. (Can you imagine what we'll say if they actually do win the World Series some day?)

What has irked me about pay-to-play is the negligible impact it has on funding a $481 million budget. How can a school system that gets it so right when it comes to athletic eligibility – no E's (or is it F's) in order to play – be so dunderheaded in thinking a sports participation fee achieves anything? Why not just have a flat $50 fee for every high school class a student takes? Same idea to me.

I've spent many, many years listening to all the caterwauling and all the finger pointing about education funding in Harford County, for that matter in the whole state of Maryland. I wish I had a solution. Wish I could write a check and just shut everyone up, but I can't.

I can tell you, however, that pay-to-play isn't a solution for funding Harford's schools or anyone else's. Hell, it's not even a third-stringer sitting at the end of the bench. It shouldn't have made the first cut, let alone the second.

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