Public School, For a Price

What is the value of a child’s annual school band performance? How about his first-year Spanish class or her position on the swim team? And who should pay for it?

In an era of state budget cuts, a slow economy and decreasing tax revenues, many school districts around the country have been forced to pass the bill for certain activities and classes on to parents. The policy, which started in select states as a “pay to play” fee for extracurricular sports and activities, has grown to include fees for some courses and a wide array of mandatory supplies and services in schools in nearly every state, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal.

Not only must students “pay to play,” in many of these public schools they must pay to learn.

In Liberty Township, Ohio, historically large budget cuts have forced the district to raise athletics fees again this year. In the 2011-2012 school year, middle school students—or their parents—will pay $350 per student per sport, and high school students will pay $550.

As in many other schools nationwide, however, fees in Liberty Township also extend to the classroom. Lakota Public Schools parents will pay supply fees for courses like French IV ($75), Honors Chemistry ($39) and Physical Science 101 ($25). In districts like Wheaton North High School in Wheaton, Ill., students owe a baseline registration fee—$225 at Wheaton—just to start classes.

In some districts, school officials argue that fees are the only way to prevent the loss of school sports, arts, and higher-level classes. In Medina School District in Medina, Ohio, ballot measures requesting a tax increase to fund area schools have been defeated three times, forcing the district to turn to an extensive fee system to save programs.

Yet some educators and parents worry about the implications of the fee system for low-income students. Johnnie May Barmore, the mother of a student at North College Hill Schools in Hamilton County, Ohio, has tried to supplement her daughter’s education with museum visits and lessons at home, but she knows that not all families have these resources.

“For a lot of these families, the public schools are their kids’ primary exposure to the broader culture, but if these cuts keep on happening, it could leave them socially stuck,” Barmore told The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Larry Johnson, dean of the College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services at the University of Cincinnati, echoed Barmore’s concern.

“I’m actually shocked at some of the cuts I’m seeing,” he told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “It will further differentiate between the haves and the have nots.”

Many districts, like Williamson County Schools in central Tenessee., have made it clear that no student will be excluded from a sport or activity because of an inability to pay. Yet for others, including Prince George’s County, Md., where the responsibility to pay activity fees for low-income students rests with each school, it’s unclear how funds for fee waivers will be raised.

Even when waivers are available, some parents wonder if having to ask for them puts families in an unfair situation.

“I can see that for some parents that would be hard,” said Nancy McGinnity, mother of four boys in the Williamson County district, according to The Tennessean. “It would almost make public their need.”

While school districts across the country weigh painting classes and baseball teams, registration fees and math workbooks, Larry Johnson worries about the effects of budget cuts on public school students of all economic backgrounds.

“They keep narrowing and narrowing and narrowing the curriculum, and students are getting a less and less broad education. We are walking away from our commitment to our public schools.”


Visit EducationVotes to get the latest updates on the fight for education funding