Aug 29, 2007

Back to school, but not for free

There is a long held myth in this county about the availability of a “free” public education. While it is true that many states have constitutions that require the availability of a free education, that is not true in all states. Ohio is one of the states that do not include specific constitutional language guaranteeing a free education.

In fact, Ohio goes a bit farther by actually having laws that permit schools to charge fees. Ohio simply regulates the type of fees schools can charge. It is therefore common for schools throughout the state to charge a “fee” of anywhere from $25 to $50 simply to attend school. Many schools also require that students bring in supplies ranging in cost from $10 to $50. These requests go far beyond simple paper, pencils, and crayons to include such items as tissue, plastic bags, and toilet paper. A family with two young children may have to pay as much as $200 to get their kids in the school door. This does not include the expense of school clothes, shoes or other personal items that a child may need.

While this expense is a hardship for many families, for some, it is a catastrophe. The truth is that there are hundreds of thousands of families in Ohio whose income falls below $12,000 a year. For those families, $200 represents twenty percent of their income for the month. I wonder if folks with a household income of $60,000 per year would be so willing to accept such fees if they were being asked to pay $1,000 to send their children to public school.

Fees charged by schools have become a perfectly legal and acceptable form of taxation initiated at the hands of the local school boards with few limitations or restrictions. These fees are also an extremely regressive type of tax, one that hurts those children in families who are already having the greatest challenges succeeding in school. Poor families are dealing with the day to day crisis of meeting their basic needs at home. Items like food, clothing, shelter, and transportation cannot be taken for granted in families living in the very lowest income levels.

It is these same children that already miss out on educational opportunities outside of school like vacations, educational toys and books. These same children are frequently precluded from participating in extra curricular activities in school. There are many people who are poor and are struggling every day just to get by. The last thing they need is another financial hurdle to overcome just to have their children participate in the local public school.

All children should be able to attend school and participate in school activities without needing to have money in their pocket. The concept of universally available education is one of the absolute cornerstones of our democracy. Education is intended to level the playing field for underprivileged children. Unfortunately, we are slowly but surely allowing one of our mainstream institutions, our public schools, to go the way of the “have versus have not.” To be sure, there are many schools that have chosen not to charge fees and have solved their financial problems without turning to this form of “taxation” on parents. Additionally, there are thousands of teachers who simply dig into their own pockets to help provide those supplies needed for children to participate in activities. All of this is unnecessary. Ohio needs to adopt the principle and practice of a free public education.

The average cost of education in Ohio’s K-12 schools is about $9,500 per child per year. The $100 collected in fees and supplies is roughly 1% of this amount. Perhaps the next increase in school funding could be targeted to eliminate school fees and pay for supplies. A “free” education would not be difficult to attain. The educational benefits to children in our society would be far greater than the minimal increase in funding that may be necessary to offset this loss of revenue.

--Jack Frech, director

[where: Athens, Ohio 45701]

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