Pay-to-Play Policies for High School Theatre Programs are Problematic

Chris Peterson

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Chances are you've probably never heard of Harford County, MD or the people that live there. But this coming Monday night, I'd like for you to keep them in your thoughts because theatre students will be fighting to save their drama program from a grossly unfair policy that's being imposed on them. The policy is what is known as "Pay-to-Play". It's where students will have to pay a fee in order to participate in certain school activities. These policies are mostly imposed on school athletic programs, but in some areas, they have been placed on school theatre and music programs as well. 

While most of these fees range as low as $25 per student, Harford County is going to charge students $100 per production during the school year. Which would mean that if a school does multiple shows a year, it's going to cost the families hundreds of dollars just for the student to be involved. 

I've never liked seeing this policy put on arts programs in local schools. Now you could say that it makes things fairer since athletes need to pay the fee as well. But keep in mind, the costs of high school sports are incredibly higher than they are for a theatre production. Athletic programs have to maintain and pay for their fields and facilities, annually purchasing new equipment and uniforms, pay for transportation for away games and staffing of those games such as referees. Take Harford County as an example, who had to allocate over $500,000 to keep their swim teams. By their own estimate, the theatre program(spread out among their high schools) would cost a quarter of that. 

Now Harford County is defending their policy by saying that theatre is just like sports as an extra curricular activity. 

School board Vice President Joseph Voskuhl said, "High school plays are extracurricular – just like sports, students must try out for a part in the play. They are not connected to any school-based class; it's strictly an extracurricular activity, just like a sport, and I feel that these students, like the athletes, should pay the participation fee."

But the point that Voskuhl is missing is that the way this policy is structured is putting theatre students as a disadvantage. The school system is already allocating funds to maintain sports programs on top of the revenue that they get from "Pay-to-Play". But it appears as though theatre students would have to foot the bill to fund the entire program, which is incredibly unfair. 

The other problem is that unlike the athletes in Harford schools, there’s no fee exemption for theatre students who are eligible to receive free and reduced lunches. So students who come from families that can't afford the school lunches, will have to find a way to afford for their children to be involved in the arts. 

While I don't know the details of the economics of Harford County, it doesn't seem like an area that is rolling in dough. As of 2014 they had a population of just over 240,000 and their largest employers were a US Army testing facility and a Rite-Aid customer service center. And not for nothing but the presence of "Pay-to-Play" policies doesn't suggest that the school budget is well funded. But actually, it kind of is. 

The total school budget for the county is $438.9 million. Now while that is spread among their entire school system, this is a very large school system for such a small population. Also there seems to be some questionable spending practices. According to their budget lines, the system spends over $1 Million on 12 positions known as "instructional facilitators." These positions are typically responsible to aid teachers in professional development, serve as liaisons between the faculty and administrators, but don't teach in the classroom. I don't know about you, but judging from the fact that they likely make around $100,000 each, it seems somewhat wasteful. Especially when the elimination of just one of them would help fund the theatre program for the entire school year. 

But budget discussion aside, this is becoming an issue all over the country where students are being forced to pay money to participate in the arts. Some might say that it's better than having no program at all. While that's true, that type of ultimatum shouldn't be forced upon students. And the more that these fees are imposed or increased on students, the more it will discourage them from participating. 

I do hope that the Harford County School Board reconsiders this action. 

UPDATE 9/5/16 - Despite hearing testimony from community members on the importance of making arts education accessible to all, board members voted 5-3 to maintain the inclusion of a $100 theater fee. Even students who are eligible for free and reduced lunches will have to pay the $100 fee. 

Photo: Bel Air High School, Bel Air, MD