Friday, March 18, 2011

A Free Public Education?

While the notion of access to a free K-12 education is a cornerstone of our society, the administration of fees is proliferating among cash-strapped public school systems. At Walter Johnson High School in Maryland, a student can expect to pay $15 to take advanced placement biology, $40 for band class, and $11 for a Spanish workbook[1]. Walter Johnson charges a total of 49 different course fees that range from $4 to $40[1]. On the other side of the country, a student will pay $20 for language workbooks at Los Alamitos High in California, and $150 for advanced placement biology lab supplies at Northwood High[2]. Under protection of state law, schools across the country routinely charge students for goods and services such as workbooks, computer supplies, art and home economics supplies, lockers, musical instruments, and parking spaces. In Montgomery County Maryland, the list of approved school fees is 48 pages long, and many of the charges are presented only as “course fees” with no hint of clarity or purpose[1]. The applicability of fees may also be confusing and counter-intuitive. For example, some schools charge students for uniforms that are required for gym classes but not athletic uniforms for sports teams. In other districts, enrollment in advanced placement courses are supposedly offered at no cost, but students may be required to pay an examination fee prior to enrollment[3].

Education officials argue the abolishment of such fees would result in a lower quality of school supplies and the termination of certain courses and programs due to a lack of funding. Money has to come from somewhere, and public schools are having to make do with a lot less each year. In response to criticism, schools claim fees are optional, and all students will receive “content material required to meet course outcomes” regardless of ability to pay[1]. In reality, however, students who do not pay may be penalized by exclusion from graduation or denial of report cards, and parents are often led to believe fees are mandatory, and their children will not be able to participate in certain activities if they do not pay.

The fee debate has raised several legal questions which hope to be settled in the current lawsuit filed against the state of California by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU has found that the “charging of fees for required academic courses is rampant,” and the state has failed to protect the right to a free public education[3]. In the above video, a high school student and his mother recount how his teacher belittled him when he purchased cheaper school supplies than those she had assigned[2]. The student refuses to give his name because he fears school employees will retaliate against him.

The suit claims that dozens of districts have essentially created a “Pay to Learn” system of schools where students who cannot afford the fees are at a disadvantage to those who can. Experts say this is the first case of its kind and could lead the way for parents in other states to file similar suits.

While California is currently attracting much of the attention on this issue, it is important to remember that schools in every state are subjecting students and their families to additional fees and charges. Budget cuts are becoming a less justifiable and compelling reason for many who feel this has gone beyond an issue of funding and is now a constitutional question of whether districts are charging students to receive a public education. While schools are certainly facing significant financial decisions, the answer is not found in making education more inequitable than it already is.


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