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."
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"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.