Not free, after all: Public school fees add up
Buying tissue and copy paper for your kid's classroom – or subjecting co-workers and family members to endless fundraisers – have become standard. But some public school districts have upped the ante, charging students mandatory fees and holding out the threat of collections or barring students from participating in activities if their parents don't pay up.
The ACLU says it's illegal. Schools counter that they're facing huge budget shortfalls and that charging fees is better than firing teachers. Education experts warn that fees create a dynamic of inequality. Meanwhile, families are caught in the middle as they dig deeper into their pocketbooks and bank accounts.
"This stuff is hard for families with two parents at home; I am a single mom," Maggie Little, a parent from Rockwall, Texas, said by email. Her high school daughter's Advanced Placement classes last year cost between $150 and $200 for the first semester alone, she said. In addition, she's paying around $400 a year so her daughter can participate in marching band.
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Brandi Moore, a mother of three in the suburbs of Ann Arbor, Mich., said she's become resentful. She has to pay class fees of $20 a year for her two high schoolers – and if the total of $80 isn't paid by senior year, the student cannot attend the senior class trip. The district also charges $165 per high school student and $110 per middle school student to participate in sports, and Moore said she still has to participate in fundraisers for band and choir.
"It feels like every year is more and more," Moore said.
The result, said Jonathan Zimmerman, an education and history professor at New York University, is "massive inequality through our system."
"The stimulus put a lot of money into American schools but that was a one-shot deal," Zimmerman said. That money has dried up, and schools are scrambling to cover the shortfall, often relying on parents to bridge the gap.
"(Our district) spends more than $4 million annually to provide sports programs and other activities. These fees help recover a small percentage of that cost," David Beery, communications director at the Maine 207 school district in the suburbs of Chicago, said via email. Beery's district gained notoriety after an irate parent posted a photo of the mandatory fees — including a required $300 Chromebook — she was required to pay for her daughter's sophomore year.
"We try to keep fees stable and consistent year to year; we do have occasional increases because of increases in our costs," Beery said. He said the district added a $65 "activity fee" a few years ago when it was facing a nearly $10 million deficit that prompted a string of cutbacks, including the dismissal of 137 teachers.
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Beery said that although the district hasn't taken any parents to collections, "We retain that as an option. Our unpaid fees last year totaled more than $100,000, so it is in the District's interest and taxpayers' interest for us to persist in our efforts to collect unpaid fees."
That's no excuse, said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU of Southern California, where a class-action lawsuit was settled in 2011. Legislation signed into law last year gives California the strictest restrictions in the nation on public school fees.
Even income-based fee waivers or refusing to let kids participate in activities unless they pay a fee is discriminatory (and now illegal in California), he said, because they wind up being punitive.
"They're pretty effective because they don't let the kids participate or they embarrass them," Rosenbaum said. "The act of making a kid request a waiver makes that kid stick out and puts enormous pressure on that kid."
In many towns outside California, though, fees are the norm. In Huber Heights, Ohio, a plan to raise the fee to participate in sports from $225 to $750 — that's per kid, per sport — was scrapped after a public outcry, and the fee was increased to $428 instead.
"Honestly, people are discouraged," said Joshua Sullenberger, a parent with two kids in the local public elementary school. Even though his kids are younger and don't play organized sports, Sullenberger said he still has to pay roughly $65 in class fees for each of them.
Sullenberger said the district is struggling because of reduced state funding and lower property values that pull down property tax revenues. Although Huber Heights doesn't mention collections, it holds families' feet to the fire in other ways if they don't pay by refusing to forward transcripts or other records, and not permitting students to participate in graduation if they have an outstanding balance.
Some places, parents have to start paying right at the outset. A Massachusetts study found that 87 percent of kindergarteners attend full-day classes, up from 29 percent in 2000, and parents often pay more than $3,000 over the year for that extra half day.
"The idea of charging for a full day kindergarten for families is unexpected sometimes and can be a challenge," said Amy O'Leary, campaign director at Early Education for All.
In June, the ACLU of Michigan sent a letter to the Ann Arbor Public Schools opposing the district's plan to start charging high school students $100 per semester to take a seventh-hour class. Although that seventh hour is technically optional, the ACLU argued that students use that time to take classes they need to graduate, so they shouldn't be charged.
"Ann Arbor Public Schools has essentially created a two-tiered educational system where those who can pay benefit and those who cannot receive a lesser educational experience all together," executive director Kary L. Moss said in a statement.
Fees can be steep. Lake Forest High School in Illinois lists on its website a required "tech/consumable supply fee" of $246 and another $190 in optional fees. Another Chicago-area school district, Waukegan Public School 60, charges returning student registration fees between $75 and $180, with rates that climb higher the longer the parents wait to pay.
Parents complain, but there's an air of resignation to their gripes.
"I don't believe there's mismanagement on the school's end so we pay it … I think there's just mismanagement from the top," parent Nicole Foster said. Two of her three kids are in the Chicago public school system, and she has to pay a $40 fee for each.
"We're having to dig a little bit deeper," Foster said. "We'll do it because we support public schools. I believe in the public school system so I'll do it, but I do question how much more."
—By Martha C. White, NBC News Contributor