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School fees and the common good

As the parent of a high-school freshman, I was stunned to learn this fall that kids at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School must shell out a $200 fee to participate on an athletic team and a $100 fee for an activity, such as chess club, debate or even the privilege of participating in a play.

These fees don’t include any of the out-of-pocket expenses for equipment, instruments or trips. So if you have a particularly athletic or musical child, it could easily cost you $600 per year for that child in fees alone. Should you have more than one child, do the math — it quickly adds up to a princely sum. Armstrong is not alone with student activity fees. These fees are increasingly commonplace in schools everywhere.

I was one of five kids in my family, growing up in Minneapolis and attending the old Central High. Fees for sports would have most certainly precluded my participation. As a shy kid with little confidence I needed encouragement, not discouragement. I’m thankful that “back in the day” my family didn’t have to pay for my cross-country running, cross-country skiing, or track. Sports and music were highlights for me in high school, college and beyond.

We should encourage activity
Don’t we want as many of our kids as possible to be involved with plays and sports after school, especially those who might not have many resources? With childhood obesity becoming epidemic, rather than putting up roadblocks with fees we should be doing all we can to encourage activity. While I know that there are scholarships for kids on reduced or free lunches, I’m certain many would not feel comfortable asking for such assistance.

User fees are a form of taxes for things that until recently we paid for collectively, understanding that we were supporting the common good. Some churches are now attaching fees for kids attending Sunday school and confirmation programs. And remember drivers education, which used to be included in public school? Not any longer. Now students/parents had better be prepared to shell out $350 or more for private lessons. Our belief in collectively contributing to the common good has been dramatically eroded.

I hope that we will reconsider this trend toward user fees and once again support young people’s activities with our taxes. Let’s do all we can to encourage, not discourage, our kids’ healthy development. It is for our common good.

Dan Johnson, the executive director of Kinship of Greater Minneapolis, writes a blog called Kinship Connections.

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Pat McGee on 09/30/2009 - 08:37 am.

    Unfortunately our society no longer believes in the common good. We have become an “I, me and mine” society.

    BTW-those fees are low compared to the district I live in.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/30/2009 - 08:57 am.

    Yup, the words, “yours, mine, and ours” have been stricken from our societal lexicon to be replaced by “it’s my money!” the same phrase used by adolescent children everywhere when, upon earning their first small paycheck, their parents sought to encourage responsibility, charity and thrift by requiring them not to spend it all, but to save some of it and/or contribute to their place of worship or to another charity.

    I guess some people’s moms and dads just didn’t bother to teach that lesson or, their kids were too stupid or stubborn to learn it.

  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 09/30/2009 - 09:58 am.

    All these “fees” are a byproduct of the so-called “no-tax” mantra presented by Pawlenty and his no-tax allies. Unfortunately they are far more insidious, and hit those least able to pay, the most.

    When Pawlenty claims not to raise taxes, he ignores the recent rise in Property Tax at the local and county level — a result of less state resources and state aid. And the fees in the school district are…TAXES!

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/30/2009 - 10:55 am.

    I volunteer a couple of hours each week to “coach” the chess club at a local charter school. In years past, when there was more interest from the kids, I also “coached” a martial arts club.

    There is also a math club, a debate team and a soccer team, all of which are organized by volunteers and none of which costs the kids or their parents anything to join.

    Other than equipment and transportation, the cost incurred by clubs and teams are largely the stipends paid to the teachers that manage them.

    When my kids were in public school, I was told that parents were prohibited from being involved with after school activities and clubs due to liability concerns. I guess there may be something to that, but I haven’t heard of any problems at any charter or private schools.

    Have you checked out any charter schools, Dan? You sound like an involved, concerned parent….just the kind of people that make charters work!

  5. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/30/2009 - 03:01 pm.

    But what about the children and youth whose parents are too overworked or too overwhelmed with their own personal drama to provide any encouragement for their children’s education?

    Don’t all children deserve opportunities to find their own special talents? Children from chaotic, troubled homes may find focus, discipline, self-confidence, emotional fulfillment, and a vision of life outside their narrow environment by running on the track team, playing in the band, singing in the choir, acting, painting sets, or sewing costumes for the school play; becoming a chess expert, writing for the school newspaper or literary magazine, sharpening verbal and reasoning skills in debate, or stepping out with the dance team.

    Activities like this were free when I was in high school in the 1960s. We didn’t have to sell candy or event books to support the school. It is sad and infuriating to think that the parents of today’s young people have become so selfish. My goodness, if school taxes go up, they might have to settle for a home theater with a 48″ screen instead of one with a 60″ screen.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/30/2009 - 04:20 pm.

    But, but, but, but.

    Thank goodness there are still parents out there that don’t let “but” stop them.

    Public schools in the 1960’s didn’t consume 40% of the state budget, and while I don’t have the figures in front of me, I’d bet my next paycheck that more kids successfully graduated then than they do today.

    Parents in the 60’s were still connected to the daily lives of their children.

    Today, we spend money by the bale and still fail to provide an adequate education for too many kids.

    It’s not a money problem. It’s the symptom of life in our pop culture driven world; it’s the legacy of having allowed our schools to be turned into laboratories for leftist socio-economic indoctrination and of turning the once proud teaching profession into little more than a collection of trade labor union hacks.

    If some people would put a just a 1/2 of the effort into raising their kids that they spend worrying about what others are doing, we’d solve a whole lot of the problems that all the gold in Fort Knox can’t touch.

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/30/2009 - 05:18 pm.

    “Don’t all children deserve opportunities to find their own special talents?”

    Yes. That’s why I volunteer.

    “Activities like this were free when I was in high school in the 1960s. We didn’t have to sell candy or event books to support the school.”

    They are still free in schools that are not bound to union contracts. No candy or book sales necessary.

    “It is sad and infuriating to think that the parents of today’s young people have become so selfish.”

    I completely agree. And in that spirit, I heartily suggest everyone step up and volunteer some of your time and skills.

  8. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/01/2009 - 12:05 pm.

    But your “schools not bound by union contracts” are available to only a minority of students, and is it really union contracts that prevent schools from offering free extra-curricular activities?

    Or is it that the teachers are so stressed from large classes full of unruly students, having to teach to the test, and having to do mountains of paperwork that you actually couldn’t pay them enough money, union or no union, to stay after school and work with students some more?

    When I was in high school, choir, band, art, creative writing, speech, home ec., shop, and acting were school subjects. Many students found their motivation and passion in these classes, and yet, these are some of the first to be cut whenever a school district has budget problems.

    As for using only parent volunteers, what if a district doesn’t have any parents who are available, due to work schedules? I think that would work just about as well as your (was it yours or some other Libertarian’s?) idea of staffing nursing homes with volunteers.

  9. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/01/2009 - 12:55 pm.

    “When I was in high school, choir, band, art, creative writing, speech, home ec., shop, and acting were school subjects. Many students found their motivation and passion in these classes, and yet, these are some of the first to be cut whenever a school district has budget problems.”

    That is sad.

    But on the other hand, today’s public school kids are guaranteed access to the history of the homosexual rights movement! Saint Paul schools may not offer creative writing, or music, but they do have “Out for Equity” which features a permanent staff of (at least) four and a budget that now exceeds $200k a year.

    Not to be outdone, MPS has “Out4Good” which is even larger in both staff and budget.

    Priorities, Karen; it’s all priorities.

    Tonight, my priority is Chess Club.

  10. Submitted by dan buechler on 10/01/2009 - 01:50 pm.

    The reason they have the gay clubs is because of the higher suicide rates/drug abuse in closeted gays. It is a public health issue. Now that could be debated but I’d prefer it left to people who specialize in public health.

  11. Submitted by Dan Johnson on 10/01/2009 - 05:45 pm.

    As an engaged parent I’ve thought about the option of charter and private schools. However I’ve witnessed the sad consequences of public schools which have been vacated by concerned and engaged parents. We need a healthy dose of involved parents to keep our schools strong and our teachers and administrators accountable. If we all migrate away from our local public schools it weakens the system. Parents that are able to volunteer end up clustered with their kids in schools that have other active and engaged parents.

    Our schools and neighborhoods used to have a reasonably good balance of kids and parents from various racial, professional and economic backgrounds. Not so much any more. This increased polarization of the haves and have nots doesn’t bode well for the society. We can’t afford to have “throw away” kids or schools. I don’t want more of my tax dollars going to prisons.

  12. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/01/2009 - 11:22 pm.

    You are so right, Dan. Social inequality and social isolation correlate pretty well with high crime rates around the world.

  13. Submitted by dan buechler on 10/02/2009 - 06:25 am.

    Dan Johnson, I liked your comments and my wife and I have had similar discussions for many years as we both grew up in towns of 10,000. We chose the local schools here in St. Paul (disclaimer we live in N. St. Anthony Park) and have been well pleased but there is still not the feel of Brianard/Worthington but times change. Another advantage is the exercise of walking to school and the high school is on a convenient bus line. I do not know where you live but as your kids get older tweeners or play sports further afield you will notice different subcultures in the capital city. I think MPLS has that too and there is some renewed tension around that SW being somewhat seperate.

  14. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/02/2009 - 06:48 am.

    You had me on your #4 post Thomas. Them it was like watching a train wreck in slow motion with #’s 6,7 and 9. Your point about charter schools and their effectiveness is correct.

    School curricula in America is long overdue for a serious overhaul. In the global economy where services can easily be outsourced, our schools are producing a crop where the majority of the students perform at best at a mediocre level.
    Changes at several major fronts need to occur for our schools to improve their performance and produce students that are competitive in a global market.

    To start with, we need to cut down on the length of the summer break. A 10 week break leads to inadvertent slippage in the academic standards of the students. In most of the developing countries, even in the tropics, summer break lasts no more than 6-7 weeks. We can gradually shrink the duration of summer break to 7 weeks from the current average length of 10.

    Average amount of instructional material that a student receives is so low that the knowledge of a 5th grader in our schools, for example in Arithmetic, is comparable to the math skills of a 3rd grader in Singapore. From Kindergarten itself, the level of instruction needs to be raised by at least 25%.

    However, all these changes will be of little value until and unless parents are doing their part in helping their child succeed in the highly competitive environment. Unfortunately, in any given week, students from Kindergarten itself spend more time in front of Television than with books. The situation only gets worse as the child grows and gets access to Video games, Cell phone, media player and a computer.

    My daughter resides in one of the most sought after School districts in the country, as per his teacher, her 5th grader is only required to spend 20 minutes of his time at home for reading! In the current world, this is simply unacceptable. Along with the teacher, parents will need to a set an example at home if they want their child to excel in studies. Without that we will continue to have freshmen students who are utterly unprepared to succeed in college and beyond.

    No matter how much money you throw at schools, it will not affect SAT scores one bit unless the kids really want to study and take school seriously.

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