Monday, September 5, 2016

Why is my public school asking for all this money?

“Don't you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies." 

It's that time of year again. The temperatures are starting to cool down. Kids everywhere are heading back to school. And that means, *some* kindergarten teachers are ready to start hoarding glue stick again!

Maybe you just bought 24 glue sticks (why God, why?), and spent over $70 on other school supplies (and that is for just one of your kids), and then you found out you need to pay even more money for this other stuff. Why is my school nickle and diming me at every turn?

When does it end?

Well, if any of the fees include items on the list below, it stops if you feel like letting your school or district know they are violating Texas Education Code Sec 11.158. (applicable to Texas public school districts and charter schools). Some of the unallowable fees include:

  • instructional materials, workbooks, laboratory supplies, or other supplies necessary for participation in any instructional course except as authorized under this code;
  • field trips required as a part of a basic education program or course;
  • any specific form of dress necessary for any required educational program or diplomas;
  • the payment of instructional costs for necessary school personnel employed in any course or educational program required for graduation;
  • library materials required to be used for any educational course or program, other than fines for lost, damaged, or overdue materials;
  • admission to any activity the student is required to attend as a prerequisite to graduation;
  • admission to or examination in any required educational course or program; or
  • lockers.
I have seen schools charge parents a fee for an app that students are required to use; this would violate the first bullet. Charging students for field trips is common, but it needs to be clear that these charges are not required and/or the field trip is not required (i.e., alternative arrangements will be made for the student). I have also seen schools who finance some teachers out of local (versus state) funds (e.g., the art teacher, music teacher, physical education teacher, foreign language teacher, reading specialists). This, unfortunately, speaks volumes about the state of education in this state. Nonetheless, this burden cannot and should not be forced on to the parents. The PTA can fundraise to pay for these employee's positions, for sure; the parents cannot be assessed a fee to cover the cost of the employee. Another example of illegal fees is when students are required to take a fee-based test like an Advanced Placement (AP) tests but also forced to pay for the test. (If your school requires students to take a test, the school must also pay any fees associated with it.) These are just a few examples of illegal fees I have heard of.

Sometimes this kind of violation can fall into the category of, "is this the ditch you want to die in?" But sometimes it is a clearly a violation that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, it usually isn't that straightforward. 

Maybe the school calls something a "fee" but on the down low it is optional for parents who can't afford it? That is what I secretly hope when I hear some of these stories. Except, I wish that schools would be more explicit about it. Conversely, some schools call something a donation, but in the breakdown of the donation, are words like "fee," which make the "donation" sound required. This kind of ambiguity puts parents who are on a tight budget in a really hard place. And maybe you aren't on a tight budget, but you know other parents are. Is it okay for you not to say something, just because you are comfortable?

Upworthy and Huffington Post like to tell us how important it is to support schools and teachers, and who can argue with that?! I mean, schools! and teachers! But the truth is, for parents on a very tight budget, these costs could mean less food on the table for kids that week, or something worse. Most parents don't want to have to start a fight or beg for help when it comes to this sort of thing.

It would just be a lot easier if (1) schools were adequately funded in the first place and/or (2) schools were following statute, rule, and district policy as written (in Texas, that includes, "A school district shall adopt reasonable procedures for waiving a deposit or fee if a student or the student's parent or guardian is unable to pay it. This policy shall be posted in a central location in each school facility, in the school policy manual, and in the student handbook.") Or, rules aside, schools could just consider that not all their students live in a state of financial excess. But I think the solution here is within reach. If there is anything my girls have learned in kindergarten, it is that there is literally nothing a couple dozen glue sticks can't solve. Or a little thoughtful consideration. One or the other.

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