When the public quits paying for public schools

Facing budget shortfalls, public schools are starting to ask families to cover some expenses, including academic classes in some cases

Paul Sakuma / AP
Van Buren Elementary school seventh grade students Daniel Mayen, right, and Victor Gonzalez, left, sit during a break at school in Stockton, Calif., May 10, 2011. Public schools are starting to charge families for more things, writes guest blogger Diane Lim Rogers.

An article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal struck me as related to the overall financial woes facing the public sector more broadly–and not just the state and local level financing of public schools that is the focus of the story by the WSJ’s Stephanie Simon. She explains:

Budget shortfalls have prompted Medina Senior High [in Medina, OH] to impose fees on students who enroll in many academic classes and extracurricular activities. The Dombis had to pay to register their children for basic courses such as Spanish I and Earth Sciences, to get them into graded electives such as band, and to allow them to run cross-country and track. The family’s total tab for a year of public education: $4,446.50.

“I’m wondering, am I going to be paying for my parking spot at the school? Because you’re making me pay for just about everything else,” says Ms. Dombi, a parent in this middle-class community in northern Ohio.

Public schools across the country, struggling with cuts in state funding, rising personnel costs and lower tax revenues, are shifting costs to students and their parents by imposing or boosting fees for everything from enrolling in honors English to riding the bus.

At high schools in several states, it can cost more than $200 just to walk in the door, thanks to registration fees, technology fees and unspecified “instructional fees.”

Well, I can vouch for that. At my kids’ public high school in Fairfax County, VA (which I assume is one of the wealthiest public school districts in the nation), I’m paying for the second year in a row of graduating seniors’ fees. If you want to see your kids donning honors cords atop their graduation gowns, you have to pay for them–just like you have to pay fees for them to join the honor societies in the first place. And yes, at my kids’ school, we do pay for a parking spot in the school lot. And I have other strange and seemingly random examples of things I’ve had to pay for this year, which I won’t get into because I don’t want it to come across as my griping about it.

I’m not griping, because it’s still undeniable that my kids’ public educations are still an exceptionally good deal for me. And I’m willing to help the school district with my private contributions, however they are labeled or to whatever specific purposes they are “earmarked,” to keep my kids in that high quality educational experience.

As the WSJ article continues:

Public-school administrators say the fees—some of which are waived for low-income families—allow them to continue to offer specialty classes and activities that would otherwise fall to the budget ax. Some parents support that approach, saying they’d rather pay for honors physics or drama than see those opportunities eliminated altogether.

Some educators, too, argue that fees are good public policy. In a time of fiscal austerity, they say it’s not fair to ask taxpayers to fund an all-inclusive education that offers Advanced Placement Art History, junior varsity golf and fourth-year German with little regard for the cost…

The concern though is how to get private contributions from those who can afford them without limiting the educational opportunities for those who cannot:

Many states require schools to waive academic, but not extracurricular, fees for the poorest students, generally those with an annual income less than $29,000 a year for a family of four. Those above the cutoff, however, can be sanctioned if they don’t pay in full. Schools may withhold their diplomas or ban them from commencement, which itself often carries a $30 to $60 “graduation fee.”

Even when waivers are available, advocates for the low-income contend that it violates the spirit of a free public education when parents must, in effect, seek charity to pay for their child’s math workbook. In California, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state for allowing districts to charge a wide array of fees.

Administrators and parents also worry that fees might affect some students’ chances of getting into good colleges. Schools across the country now charge substantial “pay to play” fees not only for sports and arts programs, but also for more modest activities, including community service.

This is how this particular issue of public school funding having to become not quite so publicly funded is not really that distinct from the challenges facing the public sector as a whole. The debate about what to do about the federal entitlement programs is pretty similar. If the government cannot afford to continue to subsidize the programs for all households (regardless of income) as generously as they have in the past, then how can we reduce the government’s contribution (and get private contributions to fill in at least part of the gap) without adversely affecting the quality of services provided by these still inherently-publicly-provided programs to those who rely on these services the most?

The public schools are approaching this problem by reconsidering what’s “basic and essential” in a K-12 education–a lot like what federal policymakers will have to contemplate about the services Medicare or Medicaid will pay for in the future (and who will pay for them):

Though the right to free education is now enshrined as an American value, when written into state constitutions, it typically carries a qualifier: Students are entitled to a “suitable” or an “adequate” education on the public dime.

That has long been interpreted expansively. As far back as the 1920s, schools were offering a wide variety of courses designed to serve many aptitudes and interests, [New York University professor Jonathan] Zimmerman said.

Today, however, educators and lawmakers are wondering if that’s sustainable—or necessary. As the population ages and fewer voters have children in the public schools, some communities are questioning whether an “adequate” education really requires the public to fund a full menu of arts courses, or advanced science classes that may draw just a handful of kids, or a debate club or a gymnastics team.

Seeking to define the extent of taxpayers’ obligation, Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal suggests that “what should be required is more than the 3 Rs, but it is decidedly less than everything school districts choose to offer.”

Because ultimately, our budget constraints–at all levels of government (besides within our own households)–are binding tightly these days, forcing us to make tradeoffs that we hope are wise ones. The WSJ article concludes with a local public school official sounding like a federal budget expert:

While it has pained him to put price tags on so much of the public-school experience, [Medina, OH public schools] Superintendent Randy Stepp said the new cost structure may not be all bad.

“Students have to realize, as our country is realizing, that you can’t have everything,” Mr. Stepp said. “We all have to make tough choices.”

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