The Rising Cost of Public School Fees

School SuppliesAs public school students head home for the summer, it's time for their parents to start worrying about how they're going to pay for next year.

Pay? For public school?

Unfortunately, yes, Just as Ron Weasley's parents worried when they had to buy five sets of Gilderoy Lockhart's entire oeuvre for their offspring to study at Hogwart's in "Harry Potter," parents of children in many public schools nationwide are worrying about how to pay for algebra workbooks, Spanish classes and "technology fees," along with the athletics and arts fees that have become par for the academic course in the past decade.

A budget that once covered pencils, notebooks, Trapper Keepers and the occasional spendy calculator has expanded to include all sorts of other nitty-gritties, like printer ink for composition teachers and fees to participate in the school band. In Palouse, Wash., Patti Green-Kent says her kids have to pay for their own band instruments as well as paying a fee just to participate; to help out, her family regularly donates used instruments for other band members to use. Science classes require a $15 lab fee (and science classes are required).

"It's the principle," Green-Kent says, "not the money" -- but the principle rankles.In Portland, Ore., so many parents embraced the idea of full-day kindergarten that every school in the city but one now offers only full-day classes for the 2011-12 school year. The state only pays for half-day classes, though. So in the schools that aren't "higher poverty" schools (where 40% or more of the student body gets federal help with lunch costs), parents must pay a whopping $335 "tuition" per month for their full-day kinders. If you can't afford that -- and don't meet the requirements for scholarships or "severe financial hardships" -- you can choose to pick your child up half-way through the day.

While frustrating, these fees are at least understandable for parents watching the news and voting on the measures that indicate schools are more and more strapped for cash. Rather than cut band or science or Spanish classes or full-day kindergarten programs, parents will grudgingly pony up the cash to buy frogs for dissecting and pay the band instructor's salary. But many fees are less connected to programs or services.

Take Illinois, where Nicola Evans tells WalletPop she pays a $65 fee each year for "registration." "And, yes, that's our local public school," Evans says. "Other fees follow for any extras, of course." She doesn't know exactly what this pays for -- she guesses "books and miscellaneous expenses" -- but the private school-like fee is irksome nonetheless.

The reason Evans' fees aren't broken down into simple itemization is a fact of public education: The costs are mostly due to staff, or "personnel," with teacher salaries dependent mostly on the number of years worked. And thanks to prevailing union rules requiring less experienced teachers to be fired first, average salaries tend to go up the more districts cut positions. The Wall Street Journal says that 80% of expenses in many schools are personnel costs. That $65 fee per student, for a typical 450-student elementary school, works out to be almost $30,000 -- roughly the average pay of a school secretary.

Worse off than Portland, Ore., however, is California, where a long-ago property tax limit, Proposition 13, forever stopped increases on tax assessments. A boon to property owners, Prop 13 severely limited funding for California schools. One writer-volunteer in Los Angeles-area schools, Melissa Chadburn, wrote WalletPop to describe how the tax limits had grown up into a middle-aged public mess and explain why, though she has no children of her own, she decided to join forces with a non-profit organization, 826LA, to provide writing classes and tutoring for learning-starved kids.

"Some of our schools have gotten creative about their funding," Chadburn wrote. "A lot of local real estate agencies pay to advertise on the side of school yards" -- irony galore there -- and "our schools host flea markets and farmers markets on the weekends to try to glean some revenue."

Some schools even take a holistic approach for parents, Chadburn wrote, instituting uniforms "to help offset the economic impact on parents of having to subsidize their students' education." Other parents pay for text books for the whole class or take individual approaches like "enrolling their high school students in community colleges concurrent with their high school classes, both to ensure their child is receiving a decent education, and to cut down on costs down the road, so they'll have acquired an associate's degree by the time they graduate."

For decades, parents have been asked to pony up for any number of expenses for public schools through annual fundraising campaigns in which students sell cookie dough, Christmas decorations and wrapping paper or chocolate bars; in field trip and uniform fees ("We had six [trips] this year that we were charged for!" says Portland, Ore., mother Katie Dunn); in auctions that have become more and more common, not just at private schools and for high school parent groups but in low-income, public elementary schools, too. My own son's 60% free- and reduced-price lunch school community raised $2,500 in an auction this year.

But what has changed is that more and more parents are not being asked to pay but are being required to pay -- and for courses and programs that are anything but elective, like the middle school science class that's a requirement in Palouse, Wash., giving parents no way around the lab fee.

As public schools get more and more desperate for funds, it's likely that "fee for service" will increasingly be the most maddening FAQ category on your public school system's web site.
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