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Saturday, December 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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The high cost of 'free' public education
School fees are a burden on many families

Excitement abounds during these "Back to School" days. Kids and parents crowd into stores, buying supplies and clothes for the new school year. Less thrilled are the students who know they will show up at the first day of school lacking those supplies, lacking those new clothes, and lacking the money to pay the ever-increasing list of school fees.

Studies show that students who feel connected to school perform better. Conversely, if they're belittled by their peers, they often lose interest, become truant and are more likely to drop out.

These kids will likely feel like second-class citizens on the first day of school. They're quickly singled out by other kids. Everyone knows who's who and who's in what economic class.

It's understandable that these kids and their parents resent being stigmatized. Heck, even working-class and middle-class families feel the financial strain if they have multiple kids in the Madison schools.

Madison high-schoolers are charged $35 for textbooks, $20 for activities, $35 for music instrument rentals, $12 for consumable materials, $115 for playing a sport, $20 for an athletic event pass, $43 for a yearbook (at East).

Any one of these fees might be a good deal (well, maybe not the yearbook), but all of them loaded onto parents at once can be back-breaking, especially when parents have two, three or four children spread across 12 grades.

A recent poll indicated that families with school-age children will spend more than $500 on school supplies. I think that far underestimates the actual costs.

After going on a virtual shopping trip of my own, pretending my two kids, who are now young adults, are in Madison schools, I was stunned at the bottom line. Assuming one was in middle school and the other in high school, the damage in school supplies alone was a little over $600. Add in the school fees of about $500, I would've paid about $1,100 for fees and supplies, and new clothes and shoes weren't even factored in.

At some point you have to wonder just how free and accessible public schools are in Wisconsin?

The long grind of state-enacted revenue limits, coupled with the steep decline in business property taxes, have caused school districts across the state to charge more and more fees to make up for lost bucks.

It's deliberate. School districts find themselves held hostage by do-nothing state politicians who can't come up with a better system for property-tax relief and school funding. So they squeeze the schools.

For many parents it becomes a double whammy. If they own their home, then they pay school taxes ' about half of which go to the schools. If they have children in the schools, then they also pay school fees.

Those fees are killing some families. It's just too much added on to the bills for supplies, clothes, class trips and junior's cafeteria account. (Okay, that's optional.) Strained beyond their means, some parents I've talked with are considering limiting the number of sports and other activities their high school children participate in, much to their chagrin.

Yes, there's a waiver for students whose families meet certain income guidelines, but only if they ask for it. For a family of four kids, this means around $100 to walk into the school door on registration day. And, sometimes, parents slide into the schools to talk with the social worker without their children's knowledge to handle the paperwork and to save them from embarrassment.

Youths on Free and Reduced Meal Plans qualify for some fee waivers. Hey, it's pretty easy to figure out who they are since they can only buy certain foods in the crowded lunch lines.

But those waivers are hardly adequate. Students in advanced math classes need costly calculators for assignments. Students unable to buy their own must use the equipment provided by the teacher. For homework, they have to use a friend's or somehow use one in school.

In short, they're navigating an obstacle course that other students don't confront. Same goes for other classes where special fees and expensive supplies factor in ' chemistry, computer science, even art classes.

And transportation becomes a big problem for many lower-income kids. There may not be an early bus to get them to school to use the calculators or meet with a teacher before classes begin. God forbid if they're delayed with work after school and miss the late bus.

Hassles, barriers, obstacles. They all stack up to mean unequal access to learning compared to their more fortunate counterparts.

I admire the charitable organizations that help provide some of the school supplies for elementary and middle school students. As a member of 100 Black Men, I participated in the "Back-to-School Picnic" sponsored by Kraft/Oscar Mayer, Office Depot and Target. The picnic has exploded in size since its inception 10 years ago, when little more than 100 backpacks were given away.

Two Saturdays ago, almost 2,500 backpacks stuffed with basic school supplies were distributed. The Dane County Boys and Girls Club had a similar event in its new center in the Allied Drive/Dunn's Marsh Neighborhood.

While it's an incredible thing to watch these students gleefully grab onto their backpacks, it's also distressful to know that this type of event has become the norm.

Going to public school is definitely not like it was in the old days. Schools had glue and paste, facial tissues for runny noses, free textbooks, no art fees or foreign-language fees. The economic gap wasn't shoved in our faces.

Now it is.

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