Public School is Far from Free--Especially for Parents

On a local listserv for parents of 4-year-olds born in August or September, discussions recently became heated when one mother of three said it was tempting to send her eldest to kindergarten just as he was turning 5--many parents in my town send their fall-birthday kids to kindergarten the year they turn 6--so that she could have "free daycare."  A kindergarten teacher on the list pointed out that schools are not free--they're supported by taxpayers--and costs to taxpayers escalate when children, especially boys, are sent to school too young and end up needing special attention and services.  Of course, parents of school-age kids (public, private, or homeschool) get dinged twice--as taxpayers first, and again when they're asked to pay for supplies, classes, and services that used to be provided, at public schools at least, at no additional cost to students' families.

On Monday, Sally Arguilez Smith of San Diego News Network highlighted "the hidden costs of a free public education."  She details some of the items for which parents are asked to pay:

Pencils, notebook paper, crayons. Basic school supplies have become standard purchases for parents at the beginning of each school year.

At the high school level, these fees can jump to thousands of dollars, when athletics and other extracurricular activities are factored in. With job losses and the recession continuing to affect families, these educational costs brought to the forefront California laws guaranteeing the people’s constitutional right to a free public education - laws of which many parents may be ignorant.

Smith reports that this month the San Diego Unified School District trustees recently created and posted guidelines on under what conditions schools may charge fees to students and parents for curricular and extracurricular activities.  The trustees reaffirmed that the California Constitution forbids the charging of fees for these activities:
This constitutional right of free access encompasses all educational activities, whether curricular or extracurricular, and regardless of whether credit is awarded for the educational activity. The right of free access also prohibits mandated purchases of materials, supplies, equipment or uniforms associated with the activity, as well as the payment of security deposits for access, participation, materials or equipment.
A couple months ago, John de Beck, a board of education member for the San Diego school district, emphasized that when school officials have asked parents to pay fees or coerced them into making mandatory "donations," the teachers and administrators are breaking the law.  He provided a great deal of detail as to what fees are allowed and what aren't in a post at San Diego News Network:
Some exceptions are allowed, like insurance for athletes, but the list is not expansive, and parents should question any demands for payment for school related classroom materials, uniforms, team travel or other costs. A rule of thumb is materials bought for projects that students can keep and bring home is appropriate. So a wood shop teacher could charge for wood used by a student for a personal bookcase, but he could not charge for a required project that every class member must do in order to get a grade. Requiring an expenditure for a personal project , like a bookcase, in order to get a grade would however be unconstitutional. If it is required, the materials should be provided. A school athletic (or cheer) uniform is not a personal project.
The costs Smith shares from San Diego are stunning: For example, $800 for a cheerleading uniform, on top of coaches' fees and tuition to cheerleading camp.  And all this in violation of a 25-year-old court order forbidding such fees in California. 

San Diego parents aren't alone in their frustration; Smith's post highlights fee controversies and guides in other districts, including Riverside, Calif. and Gaithersburg, Md. For an example of the kinds of fees parents are paying in Arizona as school budgets are slashed, check out this article by Pat Kossan.  The fees hit impoverished families particularly hard; the Daily Mail points out that in the UK, some families have barely £20 to spend each week on food, and asking them to pay for uniforms or additional supplies places a tremendous burden on them.  In the U.S., elementary school parents pay an average of $473 in school fees and other costs each year, while parents of middle schoolers and high schoolers pay $536 and $999, respectively.

On top of school supplies, there are the endless "save our schools" campaigns that seek to retain librarians, music teachers, coaches, and other staff that many parents consider essential to a well-rounded K-12 education.  The fundraising campaigns are significant, and there can be tremendous peer pressure to participate in the generosity.  In my town of 60,000 people, for example, the schools foundation raised $1.7 million in 2008 and $643,000 in 2009 through a "dollar a day" campaign in which every household was urged to contribute $365 per year to the schools.  Even in a town where salaries are above the national average, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of households for which $365 is a significant contribution.  (Interesting note: that's just about what Brian Crosby, writing at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, suggested each district charge per student as tuition to attend public school.)

Shortly before the last school year began, Catherine Garretson-Bilnoski compiled a list of school supplies that many parents considered over the top--including plastics and others products that contain chemicals that may pose a danger to students' health.  Among them:

  • facial tissues
  • paper towels and classroom cleaning supplies
  • zippered plastic bags
  • antibacterial hand gel or cleaning wipes 
  • dry erase markers and erasers
  • adhesive bandages
  • tech items, including USB drives, scientific calculators, and headphones
  • cash so that teachers can purchase supplies for the classroom community or for individual students
  • lab fees or locker fees 
  • money for publication subscriptions
This thread at the forum College Confidential asked public high school students to list some of their out-of-pocket costs.  Among them: testing fees, student union or student body cards (illegal in California), club memberships, field trip fees, gym or school uniforms, athletic gear (one student said lacrosse equipment cost close to $1,000), and encouraged donations (one student cited a cost of $250 per student, or $500 for his or her family).

In addition, some districts are asking parents to rent textbooks for a total of $100 to $400 per year.  And yes, that's for renting textbooks, not buying them.

Along with other parents, Laura Blankenship, writing at Geeky Mom, is putting her foot down.  To Crosby's proposal that schools charge tuition, Blankenship points out that she already pays $2,000 each year in taxes designated specifically for the school district and she details some of the expenses she pays, inside and outside of school, to ensure her kids get a quality education.  She scoffs (rightfully, I think) at a proposal that parents pay for laptops.

Many parents would happily make these and other investments in their children's education.  However, the past couple of decades have seen fees creeping into activities that schools used to provide for free, and families have a right to question whether all the fees are necessary or even legal.

What about you?  If you're a student or a recent graduate, what did you pay to participate in school activities?  If you're a parent, how much do you fork over each year to the schools or school district?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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