Saturday, August 03, 2013

Nickeled and Dimed

Lately, it seems that CPS parents leap to righteous indignation at the slightest provocation. Or no provocation.

Take for example the discussion about school fees that is currently raging on the Raise Your Hand Facebook page and at playgrounds across the city. School or student fees are a common way for school districts to supplement their costs for disposable instructional materials (like workbooks and subscription services), technology upkeep, and even the basic implements required for classroom learning. School fees are not new, nor are they unique to the city of Chicago. 

I remember paying fees during my high school years in a Chicago suburb 20+ years ago. And these fees included everything from the essential to the ridiculous, such as the mandatory suit rental for the ugly, ill-fitting, black nylon swimsuit uniform we were all required to wear during our annual swimming units in gym. Yes, I know (in retrospect) that we were lucky to even have daily P.E., let alone an indoor swimming pool or instructors who could teach us how to put our pants around our shoulders to prevent ourselves from drowning. 

Now, I know that few parents trust anything that comes out of CPS these days. Perhaps justifiably so. And one of the problems in this one-size-fits-all district is that school/student fees are left to the discretion of principals and LSCs. So the fees are as varied as the schools themselves. Disney II asks its families to pay $160 per student in a combined supplies and instructional materials fee. For me, that equates to $480. I'm not going to lie: this amount presents a financial challenge for my family. Garage sale proceeds, lemonade-stand receipts, consumer survey payments, and birthday checks combine to meet our obligation. 

And it is an obligation. Like getting my kids to school each morning on time, well-rested, and with full bellies, I pay my kids' school fees because giving them the tools they need to learn is one of my responsibilities as a parent. It's the same reason that I sit down with them while they do their homework, feed them a healthful dinner, and read them books every night before bed. I pay my student fees in cash, in full, before school starts because I believe it is the right thing to do.

Our school does make things easier for parents to pay school fees, giving parents the opportunity to pay fees by credit card or an installment payment plan, and offering parents a financial hardship waiver. But for every waiver, the school has to eat the cost of those supplies and those instructional materials, squeezing an already limited budget even tighter. I believe I also have a responsibility to improve opportunities for the collective as much as I can--and pushing school fees onto everyone else is shirking in that responsibility. 

Out of interest, I researched school fees in some of Chicago's tonier suburbs. These are areas where home values, prices, and property taxes are high. And they must pay school fees. Of the four districts I checked, they all have 'em. In Hinsdale, students paid $200-$225 each in student fees in 2011-2012. In Naperville, student fees vary from $42 for PK and K students to a sliding scale that goes up to $145+ for middle and high school students. At Oak Park River Forest high school, students pay $355-$540 before they can come to class. And in Lake Forest District 67? They'll take families to small claims court if they don't pony up the $230/student that is assessed each year by the district. 

At our school, the compliance rate for student fees payments has been about 75 percent. I am not sure how this compares with compliance rates at other schools within CPS, or those with similar student populations. In determining whether to increase student fees from the 2012-2013 academic year or to keep them flat for 2013-2014, our LSC members asked everyone we knew for information on student fees. This list is by no means complete, but can give some idea of the variation in fees assessed by LSCs throughout CPS. 

  • Murphy Elementary - $30/family. Source: June Murphy LSC meeting
  • Taft High school - $275+/student. Source: Nadig Newspaper
  • Belding Elementary - $35-40/student. Source: Friends of Belding
  • Burley Elemenrary - $50-70/student. Source: Friends of Burley
  • Inter-American - $55-110/student. Source: PTO
  • Decatur Classical - $175/student. Source: parent
  • Edison RGC - $250/student grades 1-8; $400/student K. Source: parent
Have a school fee to add? Please leave it in the comments. 

I realize that many families of CPS students cannot afford the student fees payments asked of them. If you live in Lake Forest, you expect to pay $800K for a house and $15K in property taxes and HOA dues each year. Paying an extra $300/student for school fees is chump change. But in Chicago, we persist in the notion that public education means free.

It doesn't.  

However, given the ways in which people can (mis)interpret public and printed statements, it's easy to see how conflation occurs.  The National Center for Learning Disabilities illustrates this beautifully with its Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) Myths and Facts table. After all, you cannot accurately judge intent from a pithy remark. This is probably why we pay lawyers $300/hour to write pages of legalese that clarify the intent behind every statement.

The idea of free public education is an interesting one, and will take more analysis than I want to make at this point in my day. It has been covered by conservatives, turncoats, and neutral parties alike. Follow the links if you are interested to read more on your own.

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