“Public elementary and secondary schools shall be free, except the Legislature may authorize the imposition of fees in the secondary schools.”

That one contradictory sentence has plagued Utah education for decades. It’s like the 19th century framers of Utah’s constitution didn’t see $2,500 cheerleading fees coming.

The Legislative Auditor General has once again made clear that Utah schools often fail to give every Utah kid a free education. One school’s extravagant cheer costs are the extreme, but it’s common across the state to pay hundreds of dollars for choir uniforms, sports equipment and other pricey items. It has become so ingrained that schools have payment plans to spread it out over the school year.

Oh. Kids can get all the books and homework they want, no cash required. But if they want to join a club or try out for a sport or otherwise do what every school encourages to help students develop skills and find their niches, they better bring their parents’ wallets.

Or they can try to ride the fee-waiver shame train. In theory, the fees do not apply to those who can’t afford them. A Utah court ruling more than 20 years ago requires schools to waive the fees of low-income students.

In practice, the fees often are not waived, or the waiver process is unduly cumbersome or embarrassing. It's like the kids who avoid free school lunch. Rather than admit your family can't afford the cheerleading fees and seek the waiver, you don't go out for cheerleading. Maybe the family buys a car instead.

“It’s almost a pay-to-play system,” the audit manager said.

No. It is a pay-to-play system, and it erodes an important part of Utah. We believe in inclusive public schools.

We send very few kids, percentagewise, to private schools, and it helps create a less stratified culture. Utah does a better job than most states at putting rich kids and poor kids in the same classrooms. That needs to be the case in their locker rooms and recital halls, too.

We can’t let our last-in-the-nation funding divide secondary schools into haves and have-nots. We need to either reduce the amount of extracurricular fees or better manage the waiver process so no kid goes without.