August 23, 2011

Free public education

by Lorraine Collins

My daughter and family just moved from Norfolk, VA to Topeka, KS and though they seem to like it there, several things have been a bit of a surprise, including some fees charged by their school district. At a social gathering shortly after they arrived, a fellow remarked that he wondered how much free public education was going to cost him this year. Last year, he said, it was $500.

It soon became apparent that the school district has a fee for "textbook rental" and "technology" and other things. For my two grandchildren in second and fourth grades, the fees added up to $200. I went to the school district's website to learn more and was amazed to see the number of fees charged to students. Fees for a 7th grade class in "living skills" amount to $11.00 but 7th grade science is only $3.00. It costs $35 to participate in middle school sports. High school sports cost $45 and fees for science, art, music, business, debate, journalism, cooking, physical education, foreign languages and numerous other courses range from $11.00 to $33.00. As one who once supervised a high school newspaper and yearbook, I was really shocked to realize that to be on the staff of either publication in that high school, a student would have to pay $33 per semester.

 Although over many years I was involved in education one way or another---student, teacher, school board member---it's been a while since I've paid much attention to the current situation, except to scold the South Dakota Legislature every year about its anemic support of public schools. (Yes, we still rank last in state per-pupil funding.) But spending just a few minutes on line asking about student fees in public schools was an education in itself.

Last year a lawsuit in California complained that 35 school districts were charging students fees to attend classes in what is supposed to be a free public education. In Illinois a woman complained that her daughter would not be allowed to register for her junior year in high school if she didn't pay $290 in fees. This woman is suffering from cancer and her husband has lost his job. Fees in one New Orleans school averaged over $1,000 and a school in Georgia charged $152 to enroll in Advanced Placement chemistry.

Several schools charge fees for activities if not for classes, including in one case $1,833 for cheerleading and $400 for wrestling. Although there has been grumbling in some South Dakota school districts about the cost of co-curricular activities and the expense of bussing sports teams across the state to play a game, so far the idea of expecting students to pay to play volleyball or football doesn't seem to be something people are ready to accept.

There are some expenses for kids and their parents in attending public schools in many districts in South Dakota, including insurance for laptop computers the school provides students or the cost of taking an Advanced Placement or ACT test. Fees are often forgiven for low-income families who meet income guidelines for free or reduced price lunches. And of course every parents knows there are numerous expenses in sending a child to school, as indicated by the lists in discount stores of school supplies for each grade. Yet the idea remains--public education should be free.

In fact, free public education has been considered so important that it is enshrined in our American history and in many state constitutions, including that of South Dakota. Article VIII says it very well: "The stability of a republican form of government depending on the morality and intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature to establish and maintain a general and uniform system of public schools wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all; and to adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education."

Even though we rank last in state support of education, at least it's still free. But one school administrator told me, "The way things are going, it's hard to say how long that will last."           

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be contacted at

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