A proposal to prevent schools from charging fees for extracurricular activities sounds good - at first. After all, shouldn't things such as sports, theater, language clubs and band be open to all students? Won't fees keep some students from participating in activities that teach things you just can't learn in a classroom?

So Assemblyman John J. Burzichelli, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, who has resurrected his call for a ban on school activity fees, is coming from a good place.

But when you think this idea through, you see its flaws.

School taxes are already the biggest component of New Jersey's tremendous property-tax burden. If you eliminate the possibility of all user fees, rising costs could force school districts to cut activities - or raise taxes.

The irony is that Burzichelli's idea actually endangers the very activities that he thinks - and we agree - are so important.

And an outright ban on fees could put more pressure on other school programs, forcing more of the kind of lose-lose choices financially strapped districts already face - between, for instance, laying off teachers or cutting a sport.

There's also the issue of particularly expensive extracurricular activities. Should every taxpayer have to help pay for a crew team's expenses? Granted, in many districts, crew parents work hard to hold fundraisers to pay for boats and other equipment. Buy why should a crew fee be out of the question?

The use of school-activity fees is not widespread. A 2011 survey by the New Jersey School Boards Association found that about 50 of the state’s nearly 600 districts were charging some kind of fees, usually between $50 and $100.

The key to any fee structure should be to make sure that students from lower-income families aren't shut out of programs because their parents can't afford to pay. Any fee structure districts set up should make provisions for these students.

In reintroducing an idea he last raised in 2009, Burzichelli said he wants to start a discussion about school fees and what should be included in a public education.

"Public education should be a benefit to all, not an 'a la carte' service," he said.

Part of that discussion needs to be a realization that our schools are in danger of becoming sterile laboratories for standardized testing. Young minds need more than smart boards, answer sheets and No. 2 pencils. They need the kind of experiences that encourage them to deal with other people and help them find their place in the world.

Providing those opportunities amid the financial pressure school systems face will require creative thinking. Let's not take any options off the table.


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