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Meryl Ain, Ed.D. Headshot

Is Public Education Really Free?

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As we look forward to a brand new school year, parents are busily getting their children ready for the first day of school. And that means spending money. The average parent will spend $688 this year equipping children with back to school clothing and supplies. Most schools prepare lists of essential school supplies that parents are required to furnish. Depending on the level of the student, these range from notebooks to laptops.

In our difficult economic environment, this can be a burden to struggling families. According to figures released by the US Census Bureau earlier this year, the median household income is dropping and more Americans are living in poverty -- about 15% of the population.

With more families living below the poverty line since the 1990s, income dropping and rampant unemployment, parents are increasingly concerned about expenses. In the 2012-2013 school budget vote, many districts scaled back programs and cut staff to keep tax increases low. But is public education really free? Just because parents pay taxes doesn't mean that they do not have to contribute to their children's education. In addition to school supplies, here are some of the extras parents are typically paying for:

  • Tissues -- To save district funds, many elementary schools ask parents to send in boxes of tissues and other supplies for use by the entire class.
  • School Spirit wear, such as tee shirts, sweatshirts, sweatpants, etc., are popular items at all levels. Students may be asked to wear these for special events at school.
  • Musical instruments, purchase or rental
  • Sports equipment and uniforms
  • Field Trips
  • Fundraising -- School, PTA, Special Interest, e.g. sports, music, theater.
  • Celebrations, such as birthdays, holidays, special events

What Can Parents Do?

  • For back to school, PTAs can contract to provide boxed set of school supplies by grade at a cost less than shopping for supplies on your own. The school will supply a list of school supplies by grade. For example, Staples does this through http://www.schoolkidz.com. Ask your PTA to investigate this money saving option.
  • Parents can lobby the principal or superintendent of schools and request that fundraising activities be reduced and consolidated. Parents may prefer to write one check for a set amount instead of being compelled into participating in a perpetual round of sales and fundraisers.
  • If parents believe that the cost and incidence of field trips are excessive, parents have the right to question school's field trip practices and ask that guidelines be established to limit frequency, distance, and cost per field trip, e.g., two per grade at a limit of $25. Also, parents should request that they are informed at the beginning of the school year what their expenses will be for field trips.
  • Request that your school limit expectations for children's birthdays at school.
  • Lobby to scale back spirit wear and unnecessary sports paraphernalia, such as sweatshirts and sweat pants. It's hard to say no when everyone else is buying it and your child wants it too.
  • Volunteer with your presence and skills at school and at special events and fundraisers instead of with your pocketbook.
  • Parents should know that all schools provide help to families who cannot afford school-associated expenses. Don't be afraid to ask your principal if you need financial assistance.