It has become standard operating procedure for elite universities to spend large amounts of money on developing athletic programs that supposedly enhance revenue and school prestige, although the revenues often don't meet expenses and the prestige is difficult to quantify. Somehow, the current higher education athletic model has become a norm nationwide, despite its many flaws. But everyone ought to be concerned that the same sort of practices are starting to become the norm in Utah public schools.

The Deseret News recently discovered that parents are forking out exorbitant sums to allow their children to participate in extracurricular activities, especially school football. Some schools charge up to $830 per student, but they try to cushion the financial blow by claiming that most of these fees are "optional," despite the fact that everyone is expected to pay them.

"It's not optional and everyone knows it," claimed one football father who preferred to remain anonymous. "If your son wants to make the team, you pay the money. ... If they ask you for something, you give it, whether it's time or money or whatever. You want your kid to play."

Yet many parents who want their kids to play are forced to confront realities that can put participation out of reach for families that are struggling financially. Schools in more affluent areas are charging what the market will bear, even if it prices some students out of the program. In addition, Utah's open enrollment law allows students to attend schools and join teams that are outside of their neighborhood school boundaries. This creates pressure on schools to beef up their programs in order to attract and retain the best players. That costs money, and it means further escalation of so-called "optional" fees.

This is a recipe for disaster.

Mandatory fees aren't nearly as costly because they go through a rigorous approval process that requires transparency and school board approval. Optional fees need to be subject to that same kind of scrutiny. And while some officials claim these fees are genuinely optional, there's no denying that those who opt out of summer camps will face disadvantages compared to those who pay the fees. That represents a fundamental flaw in how these programs are administered.

The ideals of public education are built on the principle that every child should have an equal opportunity to learn, regardless of disparities in the economic circumstances in which they are raised. If we demand a single standard of education for the rich and one for the poor, we shouldn't be willing to waive that standard when football season rolls around. On the high school level, athletics should not become escalating big-money ventures.