Start Charging Parents for Public Schools

With states across the country facing huge budget deficits and potential devastating cuts to services, the time has come to start charging parents tuition for their children’s public school education.

If parents of the 47 million students in the United States who attend kindergarten through

12th grade were billed $360 per child per year, that’s $2 a day for each of the 180 days of instruction, nearly $17 billion would be generated. However, let’s say only half of the parents can foot the bill. That still leaves $8.5 billion to deliver to public schools.

Cutting a week out of the already skimpy school calendar as a way to save money, an idea proposed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is not the solution to a fiscal crisis, though if the week cut out was the one for state testing, many teachers and students wouldn’t mind. Already American kids attend school fewer days than most other industrialized nations. While a free education for all is a wonderful gift, it’s simply not possible anymore.

Can half of America’s parents afford $360 per year for each of their children? For the price of a cup of coffee, a child can get educated for a day. For the price of a movie ticket, a child can get educated for a week. For the price of a cellular phone bill, a child can get educated for a month. For the price of a video game console, a child can get educated for an entire year.

There should be no sticker shock about this. Already parents pay for athletic uniforms, musical instruments, lab fees, school-embossed clothing, and field trips. Plus, they get nickeled and dimed to death from schools throughout the year to donate money for art and music programs, to get their cars washed for athletic programs, to consume cardboard pizza so that a few dollars will go to the schools. Children would no longer have to go begging relatives and neighbors to buy coupon books.

For years community colleges charged no tuition. Then 20 years ago they started implementing a $50 per semester fee which rose to $60 per semester in the 1990’s. “How dare they” demonstrations broke out proclaiming the beginning of the end of community colleges. Well, today the colleges have more students than ever before, and the current fee is $20 per unit. For an average class load of 15 units, the cost of one semester’s tuition of college is $300. Nearly half of community college students get their tuition waived anyway due to their low-income status.

Look, nobody enjoys paying for services that used to be free. However, a generation of people has grown up with cable television and don’t even remember that TV used to cost nothing. Paying $360 a year for a child’s education is half of what the average person spends on watching television. Which is more important?

Attaching a price to “free” services will help students and parents understand the value of education. Psychologically it’s interesting how people view something that is “free”: they tend to place less value on it than if they have to pay for it. Walk onto campuses right after lunch, especially at high schools, and notice the garbage strewn around. Kids would less likely trash their schools knowing their parents had a vested interest in the property.

Beyond charging for tuition, parents should be billed whenever their children are truant. Since schools receive funding based on average daily attendance, parents should foot the bill whenever their children miss school for non-illness reasons.

The Scotts Valley School District in Santa Cruz, California is doing just that. The letter sent home entitled “If You Play, Please Pay” informs parents that one child absent for one day costs $36.13. In 2005-06, the district lost nearly one-quarter of $1 million due to students missing school other than legitimate illnesses. While paying the bill is voluntary, many parents, perhaps out of guilt, gladly pay it, further proof that there are parents out there who would pay for school tuition.

A holiday season just ended where scores of parents spent hundreds of dollars on video games, I-pods and cell phones for their children. Is $360 going to break their backs?

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