Due to failure of two sequential tax levies, our school district will implement Pay-to-Participate in the upcoming school year. Pay-to-Participate is a policy that requires families to pay a fee in order for their children to participate in school sports and activities. My school board and superintendent are developing details of the new policy as I write this, so while waiting for specifics, I ponder the implications of change.

Many schools in Northwest Ohio, where I teach, have instituted Pay-to-Participate. Not only has Ohio’s model for school funding been ruled unconstitutional three times, resulting in severe cutbacks to local schools, federal funding for public education in Ohio has decreased 5.2%. Pay-to-Participate offsets this loss by generating income to cover the supplemental contracts of coaches and advisors. Fees are typically waived for students on free and reduced lunches, and the amount that any single family pays is often capped. Some parents and kids attest that an advantage to Pay-to-Participate is that the policy forces teens to prioritize their interests, leading to better management of busy schedules involving after-school jobs, social interactions, school work, and club activities.

However, Pay-to-Participate is controversial in part because the policy serves as one more wedge dividing the financially well-off from those less-so. The waiver of Pay-to-Participate fees for students whose families are enrolled in the Free and Reduced Lunch program can further stigmatize students. Moreover, families earning enough to disqualify them from the Free and Reduced Program, yet hovering precariously close to the cut-off line, may be most affected because the required fees will significantly burden their budgets.

With Pay-to-Participate, I will become acutely aware of families with privilege and those without; I wonder if my perception of students will unwittingly be influenced by this knowledge. I typically don’t go out of my way to investigate the financial status of my students’ families (though I find out eventually when students request scholarship support for specific activities.) Will pre-knowledge persuade me to consciously cast a student, for example, primarily because I will know the sacrifice the family has made in order for their teen can be involved?

I am confident that my committed students will return, either because their families can easily afford the new fees, or because they have already experienced the benefits of participation—they will find a way to pay the fee “no matter what,” as one parent said. I trust that my core students and their parents will stay loyal. But I care just as much about the non-core kids who don’t yet know that drama club is just what they need to carry them through adolescent turbulence. These non-core kids meander into the Theatre Studio because Drama Club emits a welcoming energy. I’ve had students who, by joining the Drama Club, have ridden through tough times in their family life. How will these students muster the courage to ask a parent for the fee to participate when family communication is tenuous?

Pay-to-Participate can marginalize other students, as well. Some may hesitate because they feel uncomfortable asking for money when their family’s budget is tight. For especially shy students, forgetting to ask for the fee may become an easy excuse, enabling them to postpone their combat with shyness. Even others may hesitate because they know their parents would prefer they play a sport or join an activity other than drama. What about parents who think Drama Club is the activity their shy teen should join, so they pay the fee. But instead of showing gratitude toward drama, their teen becomes obstinate, a typically adolescent attitude displayed as push-back against parent authority. Pay to Participate can give some parents more control over what activities they think are best for their kids.

A Pay-to-Participate policy requires students to determine in advance that they want to join Drama Club. But it takes a lot of self-confidence to say “I want to join the Drama Club,” and many adolescents, despite their inner desire, don’t have the confidence to assert that so decisively. The majority of my students enter through side and back doors; a few linger on the porch observing for months before auditioning or joining a crew. The majority of undecided students are reluctant to join because they are shy; it’s only later that some students express appreciation for being cajoled by friends into joining, realizing when the experience is over that lack of confidence had precluded them from stepping in. In addition to students who find respite from family troubles, these initially shy students benefit from Drama Club participation the most. Requiring a fee simply to join may further deter these students. Pay to Participate may reduce opportunities for students to stumble upon Drama Club, the activity that supports them at the time in their lives they need it most.

Price tags can also give buyers a sense of entitlement. How will I handle parents (or students) who expect that the fee they pay [for their child] to participate will pay for him/her to perform a certain role or work on a specific crew? What about over-confident students who envision themselves in certain roles but discover they must pay their dues within the hierarchy of the club? Paying one’s dues in the drama program is different from paying the Pay-to-Participate fee. What is the price tag for the dues one must pay to learn the ropes? Pay-to-Participate may make it easy for disgruntled students, and their parents, to complain.

While I have many concerns, I can’t avoid the policy. So I will accept the responsibilities that the change will require of me: I will communicate clearly to parents and students how the drama program will operate under Pay-to-Participate. I will compliment students for their confidence when they pay the participation fee. I will discover ways to work around the system at times in order to involve students whose families’ budgets are so tight they can’t afford to participate. I will create new ways of enticing the reluctant to say “yes” in advance of stepping in.

The Pay-to-Participate policy will push me to find ways to keep multiple entries to the Drama Program open despite the fee. In new ways, the Drama Club will continue to encourage, and occasionally rescue, kids.


Jo Beth Gonzalez holds a Ph.D. in Theatre and has been directing the drama program at Bowling Green High School (Ohio) for the past 19 years. The new edition of her book Temporary Stages II: Critically Oriented Drama Education (Intellect Publishing) is available this summer. Gonzalez is incoming president of AATE.
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