Bill would allow school activity fees

Rhode Island lawmakers are considering bill that would make students pay a fee to participate in activities like band or sports.

High school sports create some of the most lasting memories of a student's teen years, and administrators understand this.

"We feel that athletics is an integral part of the high school experience for the adolescent. To charge someone the right to play in that particular sport we feel is unfair," said Tom Mezzanotte, executive director of the Rhode Island Interscholastic League.

But school systems are struggling to meet payroll and keep their educational programs running. Officials in Middletown asked state Sen. Louis DiPalma to put in a bill that would let them charge a fee for activities.

It's not an original idea.

"In 2004, there were over 34 states that availed themselves of the opportunity to use a pay to participate or pay to play to help them maintain those extracurricular activities that continue to be either diminished or completely cut. And they're a critical part of the educational program, and to me that's the wrong way to go," said DiPalma, a Democrat.

But the state Department of Education said it fears a fee creates unequal access to sports, drama and other activities.

The Rhode Island Association of School Committees is also opposed, suggesting that new federal regulations may knock the proposal out of the running.

"If it becomes a question of civil rights and participation for students with disabilities, imposing a fee may run counter to what the federal government's intentions are," said Tim Duffy of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.

DiPalma said he thinks there are ways to make the proposal acceptable to more people by creating breaks for parents who may not be able to afford the fees, as is done in Connecticut.

"They have limits based on per year-per student that they have to pay, or per family. So, there are many options. We're not the first in doing this," DiPalma said.

DiPalma's bill appeared to have little support at a hearing Wednesday. A similar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives.