Public School Should Be Free for Students...But It's Not

Once upon a time, parents sent their kids off to school confident in the knowledge that their taxes had paid for anything Little Johnny or Janey might need: supplies, extracurricular activities, busing and all other support services. But in the current economic climate more financial responsibility is falling outside the school. So, can a public education truly be considered free?

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Taking the Free out of Public Education

Tutors and supplies paid for by a church in Lakeland, Florida. Workbook fees charged at schools in Naperville, Illinois. Charges to parents for their children to ride the bus in a North Texas school district. Fees for summer enrichment programs and driver training courses in Chesapeake, Virginia. In many schools, extracurricular activities fees that leave out those who can't afford them. New terms like 'activity programming fee' and 'learning resources fee' that were not heard in schools even a few years ago.

All over the country, things seem to be the same: families are taking on more of the burden for what used to be, and what many believe still should be, free at public schools.

Free Public Education a Constitutional Right?

Most state constitutions contain phrases like 'provide for a general system of free public education' (California), 'providing for the management and control of free public schools' (New Jersey) or 'there shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state' (Connecticut).

Bottom line: is it unconstitutional to ask parents to pay fees and other charges for services that should be provided in a free public education system? Some say yes. In an article that appeared in the Opinion Pages of The New York Times in August 2011, the writer stated that even extracurricular activities were 'essential features of a sound, basic education' and therefore asking for contributions from parents or other sources could be deemed unconstitutional.

Not All Schools as Fortunate as Others

Basically, some believe that public financing alone should pay for public education. But as budgets get tighter and tighter and federal funding more reduced, it's fallen to parents, philanthropists and even churches to make up the difference.

In this situation, some areas may benefit more than others. For instance, wealthy New York mayor Michael Bloomberg recently contributed with others to reinstate a regents exam that had been victim of budget cuts. And in an affluent Kansas neighborhood, homeowners are asking a judge to allow their property taxes to be raised beyond the cap limit to help pay more for local schools.

In poorer areas, however, reduced budgets and funding cannot be overcome, leaving children victim to program cuts and an inability to pay fees to play sports, join clubs or go on field trips. And thus the vision of Horace Mann, known as the 'Father of the Common School movement', who advocated an educational system 'one and the same for both rich and poor' becomes more blurred than ever before.

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