It's September. A touch of cool creeps into the air, the leaves take on a different hue - and for the parents of school-age kids there's the unmistakable rustling sound of dollar bills flying out of wallets.
For the Orr family in Ridgefield, Conn., it comes as a shock each fall when they calculate what another year of "free" public education will cost.
This year, the Orrs will pay their boys' public schools, $30 for parking, $100 to rent a clarinet for Gary's music class, $70 for sports insurance, $50 for class pictures, and $34 for local PTA membership. When Gary's class travels to Washington, it will cost another $350, while other field trips for both boys will cost $200 or so.
Like many families across America today, the Orrs are faced with a mushrooming number of public school fees.
Ever since California's Proposition 13 tax revolution in the late 1970s - which capped annual increases in property taxes - many states and school districts have learned to work around bare-bones school budgets by shifting more costs to parents through a series of school fees. Piled on top of bills for new sneakers, jeans, graphing calculators, and backpacks, the fees for public education can seem like less than a bargain. Especially in some areas, where the fees are on the incline.
"It seems as if there's a trend in increased student fees for sports, clubs, even transportation," says Mary Fulton, policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "There's some discussion in state legislatures about where you draw that line in the case of free public education. No two states handle it in the same way, and it's often left up to the district."
Price tag on textbooks and lockers
But there are districts where the fees are even more onerous and are tied to more basic needs - like textbooks. "On the first day of school it's not unusual for parents to write a $300 check to cover fees," says Roy Siegfried, deputy superintendent of education services in Jefferson County, Colo., where families are routinely asked to pay fees for textbooks, lockers, yearbooks, and parking. Dr. Siegfried says if it were up to him, "I'd much rather not collect the fees." But given the level at which Colorado funds its schools, "Right now we have no choice," he says.
Of course, for many families, weighed in the balance against what seems a normal part of a child's education, a few hundred dollars is not a staggering sum of money. And in virtually all school districts, there are arrangements to waive such charges for families considered needy. But some say it's the principle involved that's more troubling than the amount of the payment. "The fees involve hundreds, not thousands of dollars," agrees John Myers of Augenblick & Myers, a Colorado-based consulting firm focusing on state policy relative to education finance. "But for those of us who believe public education should be free, that's a lot."
The question of school fees drives straight to the heart of a number of issues surrounding school financing. Do all taxpayers bear a responsibility to pay for education, or only parents? Which activities and subjects are at the core of a curriculum and which are extras? Is it fair in a public school for wealthier families to buy into programs and activities - music lessons, sports participation, field trips - that more budget-conscious families may not be able to afford?
"If it's a valuable part of the public-school system then there's no reason why it shouldn't be made available to all kids," says Craig Foster, executive director of the Equity Center, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit association of low-wealth school districts. Not all families entitled to aid will be comfortable asking for it, he says. "There are a lot of families where if they have to pay $125 for an activity, then the kid can't participate."
The whole question of school fees is really "part of a different take on the larger equity issue," Ms. Fulton says, and it's an area of growing concern as more and more public schools look to "alternative revenue sources" to help pay their bills (see story, below). But as for the fees, Mr. Foster says, as of yet the amounts collected are not large enough to create serious upset. "We're not aware of anywhere in Texas where the money involved is significant enough that it's worth challenging."
Fees charged vary widely from state to state and even from school district to school district. In New Jersey, for example, a state that generously funds its public schools, most parents in suburban Bergen County close to New York City have never even heard of textbook and locker fees.
Joan Hammerle, mother of four, says that in River Edge, N.J., where her children attend public school, extra expenses are rare. Even with two daughters on the cheerleading squad and a son on the track team, Mrs. Hammerle pays only for their footwear. "For some reason they always make you pay for the shoes," she says. There is no charge for uniforms and equipment.
High real-estate taxes or fees?
Of course, the flip side of the equation is that the owners of a modest home in River Edge pay approximately $7,000 a year in property taxes, while in Jefferson County, Colo, the average family may be charged textbook fees - but faces only about $1,700 a year in taxes.
Regardless of an area's tax structure, however, some parents question the added burden of being asked to subsidize public schools in one form or another. One mother in Portland, Ore., who sends her two sons to public school, notes that parents are asked to help with office supplies. "We bring in reams of copy paper," she says. "And then you think, 'Gosh, we do pay taxes and then here I am running to Costco to buy paper.' "
But to some, the idea of asking those who benefit from the schools to do more to fund them is an entirely sensible one. "I can tell you who does like the system," Siegfried says. "The 69 percent of the taxpayers in Jefferson County who don't have children in the public school."
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