Guest Column: The high cost of high-school sports

There's a question no one in Washington state can answer: What is the total of taxpayer dollars allocated for education being used for athletic programs in public schools?

There are people in high-dollar public positions who will say they have the answer, but they don't. The amount of tax dollars spent on football, basketball, baseball, track, soccer, cheerleading and other sports programs at public schools is so high - so out of proportion to the educational needs - that no one wants it to be made public.

Over the last five years or so, educational programs across the country have been scrutinized, sanitized and turned upside-down by legislators, regulators and consultants.

It is a fact of life that school districts operate like government entities, for the most part. Few of them move faster than a snail's pace even when circumstances dictate a fast method of decision-making is required.

Yet, as schools lament the current hard times, they continue to field sports teams and pour money into athletic endeavors.

If Seattle School District Superintendent Raj Manhas were to detail expenditures annually in a State of the Fiscal State Address, chances are he will not (or cannot) produce a complete, itemized list of expenditures for all athletic programs.

The reason is simple: Athletic funds, for generations, have been sloshed around in so many fiscal buckets that the "real" cost of athletics is not just blurry, but obscure.

For example, in many schools, coaches' salaries are not listed under "athletic" expenditures, but under "staffing" or "administration," regardless of how many hours a particular coach may teach. Utilities, transportation, pre-game food, etc., are usually not.

And don't expect athletic directors to give an accurate number of funds expended on their sports programs: They just don't know.

Other states are tackling the problem by eliminating sports altogether or charging a student fee for participation in a particular sport. The only radical part of this idea is that it goes against tradition.

It's not about athletics vs. academics. It's all about priorities and children receiving a quality education.

George Smith is executive director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

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