When public school isn’t free

Illinois public schools are charging “hefty” fees for textbooks, technology, bus rides and classes, reports the Chicago Tribune. Some districts charge a “registration fee.”

“This is like private school,” said parent Gio Chavez, who walked out of Oak Lawn Community High School’s registration this week shell-shocked. The final tally for her sophomore son’s classes: $665.

The bill started out with a required $275 registration fee but ballooned as a variety of course fees got tacked on, including $25 for Culinary Arts I and II classes (her son Seth wants to be a chef); $15 for a consumer education course required for graduation; $30 for a Woods I class; and $250 for driver education.

Chris Berta spent about $886 on required and optional fees for her high school freshman son and middle-school-age daughter in Naperville Community Unit School District 203.

Most states don’t allow public schools to charge parents, but Illinois courts have upheld the fees, reports the Trib. Low-income parents can ask for a waiver.

District policies vary widely, the Trib reports.

Suburban Naperville charges a general fee of $68 to $81, plus a $29 technology fee, plus charges for P.E. classes.  At the high school level, students pay extra for more than 100 courses ranging from English ($11), a required course, to French I ($24) to nutrition ($45).

School officials say course fees cover “workbooks, paperback novels and other ‘consumable’ materials.”

Pay to play” has become “pay for regular classes” at a growing number of schools nationwide, reports the Wall Street Journal.

. . .  in Medina (Ohio), the charges imposed on the Dombi family’s four children include $75 in generic school fees, $118.50 for materials used in biology, physics and other academic courses, $263 for Advanced Placement exams and $3,990 to participate in cross-country, track and band. That’s not counting the $2,716.08 the Dombis paid in property taxes specifically earmarked for the schools.

The oldest daughter gave up choir to save $200, but the total for the year was $4,446.50.


About Joanne


  1. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Wow! So homeschooling is becoming a money-saver for PUBLIC SCHOOL kids too!

  2. Wow here also. In California it is exactly the opposite. We have to provide a “free and equitable” education for all, so we can’t even make them buy pencils and paper…..

  3. Genevieve says:

    In Iowa, registration is quite a bit less, though there are extra fees for some choirs (robe rental/costumes), band, sports, etc. Students also have to purchase school supplies (though many businesses and local groups donate to high need schools and students that don’t have money). Registration is also discounted if the family qualifies for reduced lunch and free if the family qualifies for free lunch.

    I always wonder if this means that some districts or schools receive more money than others. What happens to the schools where almost none of the students pay fees? Do they have a smaller budget, or fewer activities? Where does the registration money go, to the school, or the district?

  4. Well, I don’t think it’s the taxpayers’ responsibility to be paying for student extracurriculars (including athletics), non-academic classes like driver’s ed, AP exams, etc. Requiring students enrolled in AP classes to purchase their textbooks is fair as well, because they are supposed to be college classes, and college students buy their own book (or rent them these days).

    A general registration fee, however, I don’t support.

  5. $450 for the first child in my Chicago suburb. The bus is $300 for anything beyond a mile and a half. With Chicago weather, you have to have the bus. Your other children’s fee after the first one is $300.

    That’s before all of the extras. We pay for our AP exams and I’ll have a few this year.

  6. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Except it’s not usually “requiring students to purchase their book”–it’s a fee for RENTING the book that’s often higher than it would cost just to buy your own copy on amazon.

    I know around here the ES has pretty high book rental fees, plus a ‘playground fee’, plus a technology fee, plus ‘activity fees’ for non-optional activities. And yes, there are hardship waivers, so then you get a two-tier system—free for the poor, expensive for the middle class, but everyone gets the same low quality education! Hooray!!!

    Also, if those AP kids WEREN’T in AP classes, wouldn’t the school still have to buy them textbooks? They’re not really getting something extra– they’d still need a US history textbook, for example, even if they were just in regular US history. And if the issue is that fewer kids take AP, then why don’t the remedial and ESL kids need to buy THEIR books too?

    If a district can’t fund the schools on property taxes, the answer is to cut back, not to charge extra. It’s like trying to pay off debts ONLY by increased revenue and not by cutting spending as well–it’s hopeless and inefficient and leads to a constant crisis mode…….

  7. Mark Roulo says:

    Since the kids are required by law to attend school, what happens if the parent refuses to pay to register the kid (assuming that the kid shows up on the first day of school)?

  8. Genevieve says:

    I have to disagree with Crimson Wife, if it is offered during the school day as a credit class, I don’t believe that there should be an extra fee. I believe as long as we say we are offering a free public education, then it should truly be free. Now I am open to reexamining whether we should offer a free education.

    I do think that it is perfectly reasonable for school districts to decide that choir, band, sports(one of my high schools had several sports practices during 1st period), driver’s ed, etc should be offered outside the school day without credit.

    Driver education can be very unfair. In our area (and I believe the state), the school must provide it for free to students that qualify for free lunch (and I believe at a very low cost for students that qualify for reduced lunch). However, everyone else has to pay very large costs. Many districts in the area outsourced driver’s ed to a private companies. The paying students have to pay more so that the other students go for free. The private company doesn’t get any extra money from the state or district to teach the students that are free.

  9. dangermom says:

    Gahrie said, “In California it is exactly the opposite. We have to provide a “free and equitable” education for all, so we can’t even make them buy pencils and paper…..”

    In my CA town, families do indeed buy lots of required supplies and pay fees. It costs hundreds of dollars per semester to ride the bus, so most people drive their kids to school past the almost-empty buses, which makes for a lot of traffic jams. I’ve known lower-income people to start homeschooling because it’s cheaper, even though they’re not equipped to do well at it. There are low-income waivers, but they’re not exactly well-advertised.

    I homeschool, myself. I don’t think I spend more than my PS friends, who have a lot of fees to pay.

  10. “if it is offered during the school day as a credit class, I don’t believe that there should be an extra fee.”

    Then the question is why is the school even offering driver’s ed at all? My high school certainly didn’t. If students wanted to do driver’s ed so that they could get their license at 16.5 rather than 18, they had to find a provider and pay for it themselves.

    if those AP kids WEREN’T in AP classes, wouldn’t the school still have to buy them textbooks?

    College-level textbooks are typically far more expensive than high school level ones.

  11. I find this fee-charging practice very troubling, though with no initiative to raise revenues, I’m not sure what can be done about it. I wonder how much could be saved by getting rid of at least some standardized testing.

    In California, also, there is a back door: the school-based PTAs raise an awful lot of money and fund an awful lot of classes & programs.

  12. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Crimson– but ESL and special Ed kids also take more expensive resources than the ‘normal’ kids. So why is it OK to make the AP kids pay extra for their education, and NOT make the Sped kids pay?

    If the AP kids are too expensive to get free public education, then let them leave school in 10th grade and go to college early!

    But that would lower the school’s test scores…. better to keep them on hand, and make them pay for the ‘privilege’ of challenging classes…..

  13. Genevieve says:

    The other thing with AP classes is often these are the only challenging classes offered. Honors classes have been mostly eliminated in my area. There is a basic class and AP class for American History, Government, Language Arts, etc. Calculus is only offered as AP. Sometimes there is also a remedial/special education section, though this is becoming less of the case in any class that isn’t reading or math. If your child isn’t in AP, the alternative classes probably won’t prepare the student for college.

  14. Cranberry says:

    College textbooks seem more expensive to a college student, because public high schools have provided textbooks to students. A quick glance at Amazon did not lead me to believe that an AP textbook would be more expensive than a high school textbook. I presume school districts are able to negotiate discounts with publishers–or they should be able to, if they have competent business managers.

    If the school forces families to buy their own textbooks, they should allow them the option of finding less expensive replacements. “Rentals” which are more expensive than used textbooks are revenue items. (There could be a good argument for mandatory, refundable deposits on textbooks, to encourage students to return them at the end of the year.)

    Our local school system has added fees for transportation, activities, and sports. Strangely enough, the sums raised by the fees slapped onto hitherto free activities match the sums expended for technology.

    I wouldn’t object to such fees in a private school, but in the public system, it leaves a very bad taste. Many of the parents pushing for expensive options at their local schools serve on the school board and PTA. They are able to cover the fees, thus enacting fees doesn’t limit their children’s education. The children whose parents can’t afford to take time off from work to volunteer at school are the children who must choose between activities–if their families can afford the fees at all.

    School officials often point out that fee waivers are available for those who can’t afford the fees, but why should families paying sky-high property taxes have to reveal their financial details to school officials to fully participate in (what should be) a “free, appropriate public education?”

    Our family can afford the fees, but I hate the two-tier system which inevitably results. The system we had before the fees, which offered less “world-class” technology and fewer activities, was better than our present system. It was better, because all kids in town could participate. We didn’t have special programs for the wealthy, which is what happens when one requires parents to buy their way in.

  15. Hey. I wouldn’t mind paying a fee for extracurriculars if they didn’t go and offer it for FREE to the “poor” kids who are on reduced/free lunch. You know, the ones whose parents drive a new truck whilst we’re in 12-y-o vehicles?

    Sorry, if it is “extra” for me, it should not be something I’m paying for for you. Just got done paying over $400 for my oldest two high schoolers… and that’s only because I am not paying for “activity fees” and parking…

  16. Cranberry: There’s no need for “mandatory, refundable deposits on textbooks, to encourage students to return them at the end of the year”. Where I teach (a public high school in rural Virginia), if you don’t return all of your textbooks and library books in good condition or pay for any that are lost or damaged, you don’t get to graduate (if you’re a senior) or register for the next year’s classes (if you’re an underclassman). There’s always a student or two who pays up the morning of Graduation Day. I suppose you could get away with not paying for lost or damaged books by dropping out, but I’m not sure you could get a transcript if you just moved to another county.

  17. Lightly Seasoned says:

    As part of the College Board Audit Process (required in order to put the trademarked AP designation on a transcript), all students enrolled in AP courses must be provided with texts to use both in class and out.

    You can look it up. Whether individual districts honor that requirement or not, I have no idea. My district charges for busing inside 1.5 miles, but that’s it. We just fine the kids if they don’t turn in books. We can’t legally withhold graduation, but we can refuse to issue transcripts. That works for most kids. I always issue the really crap copies to chronic book losers (and I have copies of novels bought in the 70’s; Vinaclad is indestructable).

    Some publishers give discounts depending on volume. I negotiate all that for my department — central office just pays the bills.

    School boards are responsible for all decisions on student fees. If you don’t like them, vote the bums out.

  18. I’ve got no problem with fees for extracurricular activities. I don’t even have a problem with fees for electives for specialized course materials, especially in the arts and the like. But a mandatory REGISTRATION FEE when attendance is mandated by law? That is beyond the pale in my book.

  19. I looked up the cost for the book that I’m 90% sure the regular bio classes at my alma mater use. It runs $81.47 at the publisher’s site. The cost for the current edition of the book used in my AP bio class is $201.66- more than double! I don’t think that the taxpayers should be on the hook for the extra cost.

    I also think that there should be cost-sharing between districts and families for the added cost of special ed (and I say this as the mom of a child who will most likely transition in the next 6 months from Early Intervention to our district’s special ed program). We pay a cost-share when we get treatments for her through our health insurance, the same should apply for special ed.

  20. Cranberry says:

    Taxpayers pick up the extra cost for sped placements, and for vocational training, which can cost much more than an academic high school. I don’t see why AP students should be required to pay more. It isn’t as if they’re taking extra courses that they’re somehow not entitled to. As our economy needs students who don’t need to take remedial courses in college, supporting AP courses should be a priority.

    If the school system acquires textbooks, it’s a one-time cost, which can be amortized over years.

  21. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Textbooks are not one-time costs! Holy cow. When they changed the AP exams this year, for example, the textbooks all have to be revised. Secondly, they get lost, fall apart, etc. They also tend to go out of print fairly quickly (although not quite as fast as college texts), so it is hard to buy replacement copies after about 5 or 7 years — you have to buy a whole new set of the latest edition. I can scavenge the used book sellers on Amazon, but that’s hit or miss. This is why we’ve decided to stick with novels and ditch anthologies entirely.

    I think the kids should pay for the AP exams, personally. They’re the ones getting the college credit and saving thousands in tuition. They also need some skin in the game to take the exams seriously.

  22. Cranberry says:

    They aren’t yearly costs, though? You aren’t replacing every textbook every year. So the difference between an $80 textbook and a $120 textbook, for a student who’s renting it for one course, should be closer to $10 than $40.

    If they last 5 to 7 years, they may last longer than laptops, which seem to last 4 to 5 years, with gentle treatment.

    As many states will need to replace existing textbooks to comply with the Common Core tests, the AP courses don’t require more frequent textbook changes, do they?

  23. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Yes, I’d say maybe $10/kid sounds reasonable. But again, the CB actually requires the school to provide those books as a condition of using their trademark — so it shouldn’t matter. I launched the two AP English courses at my school, and the initial start-up for books was pretty ghastly. It’s leveled out to maybe $1,000/course every year now (for an enrollment of about 90 kids total).

  24. Deirdre Mundy says:

    LS– but why does a school have to offer the “AP approved” version of AP English/Science/Math?

    After all, to get the credit, all you have to do is pass the test. My husband took (and got 5s on) several AP tests without taking the classes. He just read the study guide, took a practice test, and took the actual test.

    For something like AP English, a lot of the works are in the public domain now and available in cheap Dover editions. The poetry used has been anthologized EVERYWHERE. So why use the AP texts? As long as you cover the literature, who cares about the edition?

  25. Roger Sweeny says:

    LS– but why does a school have to offer the “AP approved” version of AP English/Science/Math?

    1. Students believe that “better” colleges are more likely to accept them the more AP courses they have on their transcript. As far as I can tell, this is true.

    2. Very few students realize they can take an AP test without taking the corresponding AP course.

    Most of them would not be able to get a good mark on the AP test anyway without taking a course that was similar in rigor to an AP course. At the moment, schools just don’t offer a course about which they can say, “This is not an official AP course but it is hard and if you work hard in it, you will be able to take and get a good mark on the AP exam and (depending on where you go) get college credit. Oh, and by the way, eventually selective schools will realize what an intellectual challenge this course is, and treat it like an official AP course when they decide whether to accept you.”

  26. In the AP arena, many colleges only award credit for scores of 4 and 5 (very true in math and sciences courses), when credit was being awarded for scores of ‘3’, many colleges found that students weren’t ready for the next course (calculus II, for example).

    Students who don’t want to go the AP route might consider CLEP exams which allow students to earn course credits by examination in college (usually restricted to no more than 30 credits maximum, and only on lower division courses).

  27. Deirdre Mundy says:

    At my college, AP credit was only awarded for 4s and 5s OUT OF YOUR CONCENTRATION. If you were a Math major and got a 5 on AP Calc BC, it was for placement only.

    Also, 4 and 5 in English, History, etc. only counted for ELECTIVE credit, not against core or concentration requirements.

    And the whole “Only official AP courses count as AP” thing is especially questionable when AP classes are open enrollment0— then AP at one school could be a high-level course, while AP at another isn’t college prep at all. Really, I think the push for “More AP” is going to lead to colleges ignoring the transcripts and just looking at scores.

    Also, FWIW, at my high school, AP scores tracked suspiciously close to SAT and SAT2 scores. The kids who did well on SAT verbal tended to do well on AP English and History, the ones who did well on SAT Math tended to do well on AP STEM tests.

    It’s almost as if all of the tests, even the “subject” ones, are just a proxy for “basic smarts.”

  28. Sean Mays says:

    Another reason to have the AP seal of approval on the course: Colleges see it on the transcript for all the marketing reasons given above and THAT gets weight. Many of these kids are seniors the colleges see THAT; the acutal AP scores, well, they come out just before the kid goes to freshman orientation, so they’re not a factor there. Different story for juniors and *gasp sophomores though.

  29. Cranberry says:

    We’ve wandered off topic, though. I find it ironic that we’re debating the value of AP courses. After all, if a school’s doing a fine job, there should be students ready to take AP courses by senior year. (I don’t consider AP courses to be college-level. They’re more along the lines of top level high school courses which allow colleges to gauge candidates’ skills by means of an independent exam.)

    Are academics the goal of a public school education? If so, then fees should not be attached to academic courses, nor to courses which are required for graduation (PE, health, etc.) To require fees contradicts the entire “free” part.

  30. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Hmm. OK.

    1. A student can take the test without the course, absolutely. The AP trademark is a transcript/college app thing — it’s “branding” saying the kid is taking the most rigorous courses available to them. Whether or not the AP course actually is the most rigorous is beside the point. Colleges, however, do look at the number of students taking the exams and average scores for a building, which tends to reveal sham AP courses.

    2. There’s no reading list for AP Lit, so cheap Dover editions vs. more contemporary works isn’t really a relevant issue there unless you’re talking pre-20th century texts (there’s always at least one pre-20th century passage in the multiple choice) — but those have been in the public domain for as long as the test has existed. The poetry that shows up on the exam may or may not be anthologized. This year it was a contemporay piece called “The Quilt” that I don’t think is. Last year it was an obscure passage from Henry VIII. Sometimes they’ll pair up a contemporary and classic poem (the Eros poems from one year.. 2005?) — most often they use obscure works by canonical authors — especially the metaphysical poets. They love the metaphysical poets. Poems with animal imagery and metaphors are also big. If you look at an actual test, there are always several very contemporary works in either one of the essay prompts or multiple choice passages. And of course students can write on any work they wish for the open prompt.

    3. SAT and ACT verbal scores correlate very accurately with AP English exam results. I don’t have the chart in front of me, but you can google it. Some school that eschew open enrollment use those scores to screen for who takes the course. Nothing suspiciuos about it. The College Board publishes the information.

    4. After years and years of working with seniors, I find which school takes which score and awards what credit to be completely and utterly random. I tell the kids to look it up if they know where they are going (I can tell them for the most popular schools), and to keep in mind that it isn’t unusual to transfer universities and the one they transfer into may accept a score.

    5. The College Board owns the trademark for Advanced Placement. If you want the AP brand on the transcript (oh, yes, please, Jay Matthews!), you gotta play by their rules.

  31. Lightly Seasoned says:

    It suddenly occurs to me that the perception that AP Lit uses public domain works may come from the prep materials. The prep materials use these works heavily because they don’t have to buy the rights. They don’t mirror the selections on the actual tests in that regard.

  32. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Lightly Seasoned– BUT you don’t need to have read the works that appear on the AP lit test to ace the test– you just need to know how to analyze literature and to write.

    Way back in 95, I think the only NON public domain thing we read in AP English was “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” (as a treat after Hamlet.) The test did include a story from “Woman Hollering Creek”, but also included some Donne and bits of Bronte.

    So, if the materials used to prep students can come completely from the public domain and “traditional English texts” (Like Keats, Austen and Shakespeare), then why charge the AP kids extra FOR THE COST OF THE BOOKS?

    I have no problem charging for tests themselves. I had to pay, and when I moved to the midwest I was flabbergasted to find out that kids here can take as many as they want for free!

  33. Michael E. Lopez says:

    AP is a private company.

    If students are going to contract with them for services, then the students should bear the cost.

    Public schools — if we’re going to do the whole “public school” thing and talk about taxing people to provide an education for everyone — need to be free.

    If they’re not going to be free, a whole lot of the moral justification for taking people’s money through taxes to pay for them goes out the window.

  34. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Deidre: Dunno. I’ve already said twice, they’re not supposed to charge for the books. We certainly don’t in my district. FWIW, a book is a book. Frankenstein costs the same as Atonement. English Lit is a little different than the other tests, which are so much more specific in content — and the books are generally less expensive, too. But nobody should be charging.

    Other than that, I don’t know what you’re trying to convince me of. I live and breathe that test. I know exactly what is on it.

  35. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Sorry–I thought you said it DID make sense to charge an extra fee for AP books because yours ran you 1000 a year?

    I just looked back and realized I misread your comment— though I am shocked that AP English books would run 1,000 a year–when I was in school they used them for AGES— my books had about 20 years worth of names in the front, and I know some kids in other classes ended up with their parents’ old books.

  36. Lightly Seasoned says:

    We switch up titles — keeps the courses fresh and the kids from reusing older siblings papers. Dovers are cheap, but have to be replaced every year. The ones with 20 years of names cost about $15 each. One new title, a few fill-ins for lost books, and you’re at $1000. The costs are crazy.

  37. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Ohh! I get it! Yeah, our AP English teacher didn’t switch up at all– she used the same curriculum every year and had a lot of in-class blue book style essay exams. And she’d been teaching the course forever, so she was in total control. (Also, she kicked butt! I arrived at my super-competitive college worried because I’d heard that EVERYONE fails their first paper in freshman hum— only to get a B+! When a chunk of the Andover types failed! Why? Because my public school AP English teacher had been THAT GOOD. We hated her at the time– she was the strictest, meanest, most unforgiving teacher we’d ever encountered…… but she was GOOD. Honestly, if I could guarantee that every teacher my kids ever got was as good as Dr. Smith, I’d probably send my kids to school……)