Originally Posted on The Wall Street journal

Stephanie Simon

MEDINA, Ohio—Karen Dombi was thrilled when her three oldest children were picked for student government this year—not because she envisioned careers in politics, but because it was one of the few programs at their public high school that didn’t charge kids to participate.

Budget shortfalls have prompted Medina Senior High to impose fees on students who enroll in many academic classes and extracurricular activities. The Dombis had to pay to register their children for basic courses such as Spanish I and Earth Sciences, to get them into graded electives such as band, and to allow them to run cross-country and track. The family’s total tab for a year of public education: $4,446.50.

“I’m wondering, am I going to be paying for my parking spot at the school? Because you’re making me pay for just about everything else,” says Ms. Dombi, a parent in this middle-class community in northern Ohio.

Public schools across the country, struggling with cuts in state funding, rising personnel costs and lower tax revenues, are shifting costs to students and their parents by imposing or boosting fees for everything from enrolling in honors English to riding the bus.

At high schools in several states, it can cost more than $200 just to walk in the door, thanks to registration fees, technology fees and unspecified “instructional fees.”

Though public schools have long charged for extras such as driver’s education and field trips, many are now asking parents to pay for supplies needed to take core classes—from biology-lab safety goggles to algebra workbooks to the printer ink used to run off grammar exercises in language arts. In some schools, each class comes with a price tag, to be paid at registration. Some schools offer installment plans for payment. Others accept credit cards—for a processing fee.

Public-school administrators say the fees—some of which are waived for low-income families—allow them to continue to offer specialty classes and activities that would otherwise fall to the budget ax. Some parents support that approach, saying they’d rather pay for honors physics or drama than see those opportunities eliminated altogether.

Some educators, too, argue that fees are good public policy. In a time of fiscal austerity, they say it’s not fair to ask taxpayers to fund an all-inclusive education that offers Advanced Placement Art History, junior varsity golf and fourth-year German with little regard for the cost.

The proliferation of fees comes at a time when the cost of public education has been soaring. After adjusting for inflation, average spending per pupil has increased 44% over the past two decades, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Personnel costs—which amount to about 80% of expenses in many school districts—have driven some of the increase, along with increased costs for utilities and technology. The average salary for a public-school teacher nationally has jumped 26% since 2001, though that growth didn’t quite keep pace with inflation.

At the same time, school revenue has plunged, mostly due to cutbacks in state funding. Squeezed by lower tax revenue and higher expenses for programs such as Medicaid, states have cut education funding by a collective $17 billion in the past two fiscal years, though some of that was backfilled by the federal stimulus.

Large additional cuts are on the table this fiscal year in many states, among them California, Texas, Florida and Colorado.

Nationally, district after district has eliminated or cut enrichment programs for gifted students, help for struggling readers, advanced math and science courses, music, art, foreign languages, drama, sports. Some have tried asking local residents to approve higher taxes, only to be shot down at the polls. So administrators say fees are the only way to stave off even more drastic cuts.

“Things are getting tighter,” said Collene Van Noord, superintendent of the Palmyra Area School District in southeast Pennsylvania, which recently began charging $20 lab fees for many science, art and music courses. “If we can pass on the added costs for some of our more expensive courses to direct users, it seems more fair than to pass them on to the entire community” in the form of tax hikes, she said.

BAND FEE: $200. Because of new fees at Medina Senior High, Tessa Dombi, a freshman, had to choose between band and choir.
BAND FEE: $200. Because of new fees at Medina Senior High, Tessa Dombi, a freshman, had to choose between band and choir. Dombi Family

Most states prohibit public schools from charging for core classes. But schools can generally charge for supplemental materials, a category that has been broadly defined. In Iowa, for instance, paper is considered “not essential to the teacher’s presentation of a course,” and thus need not be provided at public expense, the state Department of Education website explains.

A 52% increase in some fees this year at the Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kan., means a typical high-school student now owes $235 at enrollment, plus supplies fees as high as $65 a class. The tab will be similar next year at Wheaton North High School in Wheaton, Ill., after a recent fee hike: $221 for baseline registration plus $150 per sport and class fees as high as $50 each.

Here in Medina, 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.

Their oldest daughter, Tessa, loves to sing, but they told her she couldn’t take a choir class this year, as it would add $200 to the bill. “It’s high school,” Ms. Dombi said. “You’re supposed to be able to try different things and see what you like.”

CROSS-COUNTRY FEE: $660. Zach Dombi chose track.
CROSS-COUNTRY FEE: $660. Zach Dombi chose track. Dombi Family

Many states require schools to waive academic, but not extracurricular, fees for the poorest students, generally those with an annual income less than $29,000 a year for a family of four. Those above the cutoff, however, can be sanctioned if they don’t pay in full. Schools may withhold their diplomas or ban them from commencement, which itself often carries a $30 to $60 “graduation fee.”

Even when waivers are available, advocates for the low-income contend that it violates the spirit of a free public education when parents must, in effect, seek charity to pay for their child’s math workbook. In California, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state for allowing districts to charge a wide array of fees.

Administrators and parents also worry that fees might affect some students’ chances of getting into good colleges. Schools across the country now charge substantial “pay to play” fees not only for sports and arts programs, but also for more modest activities, including community service. Among the charges: $350 to join chess club, $200 to participate in Students Against Drunk Driving, $85 to write for the literary magazine—and $50 to clean up beaches with the Environmental Club.

Academic transcripts, too, can take a hit, as the most rigorous courses—the kind that impress college admissions officers—can be the most costly. At Marietta High in southeastern Ohio, it costs $33 to take chemistry, $36 for honors chemistry and $152 for the Advanced Placement course.

Dakota Ridge High in Littleton, Colo., charges sophomores $15 for basic 10th grade English but $50 for honors, which uses additional materials. Juniors can take basic English for $8 or pay $75—plus a test fee of about $90—for Advanced Placement English Literature.

Although most districts make just a small percentage of their overall budget from academic fees, administrators say the revenue allows them to replace worn textbooks, for example, or provide math workbooks that students can actually write in.

The jump in public-school fees has a back-to-the-future feel for New York University professor Jonathan Zimmerman, who studies the history of education. He’s reminded, he said, of the early 19th century, when public schools drew on taxpayer support, but also often charged tuition. That practice began to shift in the 1840s with Horace Mann’s drive for free “common schools.”

Basic Registration Fees

Community Unit School District 200 – Wheaton, Ill.
Elementary school:
Registration fee — $95
Technology fee — $15
High school:
Registration fee — $175
Locker fee — $6
Music fee — $10
Technology fee — $40
Graduation fee — $30

Blue Valley School District – Overland Park, Kansas
High school:
Learning resources fee — $100
Technology supply fee — $15
Activity programming fee — $120

U-46 High School District – Elgin, Ill.
Instructional fee — $125
Locks — $10
Student ID — $5

Course Supplies Fees

Lakota Local Schools – Liberty Township, Ohio
English 9 — $12
French IV — $75
Honors Chemistry I — $39.50
Physical Science 101 — $25
AP Microeconomics — $40

Bloom Township High School District – Chicago Heights, Ill.
Physics — $13
AP Biology — $34
Advanced Ceramics — $25
Freshman P.E. — $26

Dakota Ridge High School – Littleton, Colo.
English 9 – $18
Honors English 9 — $38
Honors English 12 — $59
AP English Literature — $75
Chemistry — $10
Honors Chemistry — $20
AP Chemistry — $40 plus book
German II — $20

Leeds High School – Leeds, Ala.
Art — $40
Business technology — $25
Chemistry — $25
Drafting — $40
Marine Biology — $25

Extracurricular Activities Fees

Arlington Public Schools – Arlington, Mass.
Cheerleading — $408
Ice Hockey — $720
Gymnastics — $720
Wrestling — $480

Lakeville North High School – Lakeville, Minn.
Debate — $190
Fall Musical — $110
Chess Club — $150
Science Olympiad — $150

Lenape Regional High School District – Shannon, N.J.
Activities fee — $200 to participate in one or more activities including:
Literary Magazine
Gay/Straight Alliance
Students Against Drunk Driving
Asian Club
National Honor Society
Student Government
Stage Crew
Jazz Band

Hamilton-Wenham High Regional High School — South Hamilton, Mass.
Football — $864
Volleyball — $537
Baseball — $591
Girls tennis — $372
Boys tennis — $239
Literary Magazine — $85
World language club — $71
School musical — $200

Miscellaneous fees

Douglas County School District – Castle Rock, Colo.
Riding school bus daily — $180
Band uniform cleaning — $15 / semester

U-46 High School District – Elgin, Ill.
Driver’s Education
Behind the wheel instruction — $300
Textbook — $20
Student parking permit — $60

Though the right to free education is now enshrined as an American value, when written into state constitutions, it typically carries a qualifier: Students are entitled to a “suitable” or an “adequate” education on the public dime.

That has long been interpreted expansively. As far back as the 1920s, schools were offering a wide variety of courses designed to serve many aptitudes and interests, Mr. Zimmerman said.

Today, however, educators and lawmakers are wondering if that’s sustainable—or necessary. As the population ages and fewer voters have children in the public schools, some communities are questioning whether an “adequate” education really requires the public to fund a full menu of arts courses, or advanced science classes that may draw just a handful of kids, or a debate club or a gymnastics team.

Seeking to define the extent of taxpayers’ obligation, Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal suggests that “what should be required is more than the 3 Rs, but it is decidedly less than everything school districts choose to offer.”

In Medina, a quaint town midway between Cleveland and Akron, school costs had risen 23% over five years to $75 million in 2010, after the district opened two new elementary schools to meet projected enrollment increases. Last year, revenue fell sharply after state funding was cut.

To shave costs, the Medina school board eliminated 106 teaching positions, or 20% of the teaching staff, over two years. Class size increased—from 25 kids per teacher, to 31 or 32. Many AP science and math classes were eliminated, along with the German and French programs. The district also reduced its offerings in art, music and other electives.

To further bring down expenses, the teacher’s union agreed last summer to $1 million in concessions, taking a 2.45% pay raise instead of the scheduled 3.45% raise and boosting their contributions to their health coverage from $80 a month for a family plan to $215 a month. These moves, combined with the layoffs, have saved the district nearly $3 million, cutting the 2011 budget by 4%, to $71 million. The district’s average cost for teacher salary plus benefits is about $68,000.

The district also sought to raise revenue. Three years in a row, voters were asked to approve higher property taxes to stave off steep cuts to athletic and arts programs. Three years in a row, voters said no.

“We can’t afford to get our teeth fixed because it’s too expensive,” said Joyce Harris, who is 70 and voted against the proposed tax hike. “If we have our taxes go up to pay for little Joey’s football, that’s not exactly fair.”

So the district turned to parents for financial help. Starting last winter, Medina began charging $660 to play a high-school sport, $200 to join the concert choir and $50 to act in the spring play.

Large families didn’t get a break. Neither did poor families, though 16% of Medina students are considered economically disadvantaged.

There were to be no waivers, for any reason.

The extracurricular fees, meant to raise $1 million for the district, had immediate impact. The track team, for instance, shrank from 191 to 92 student athletes. “It’s like half your family is suddenly gone,” said 15-year-old Tessa, a runner.

Some academic costs also jumped. The school cut advanced calculus to save money, so a handful of top students were left with no math class. Worried that would look bad on her son’s college applications, Cindy Fotheringham shelled out $850—plus $150 for books—to enroll him in an online calculus class. At the elementary school level, many parents will pay $30 per student next year to cover math workbooks and writing journals, which will bring in about $68,000 for the district.

Administrators say the cuts and fees prompted about 100 students to switch to private schools.

But the fees have brought a few unanticipated benefits. Though participation in athletics and music is down, those who remain are more committed than ever, according to some teachers. Many teens have taken jobs to help pay for their activities and say they’re proud of their new responsibilities.

While it has pained him to put price tags on so much of the public-school experience, Superintendent Randy Stepp said the new cost structure may not be all bad.

“Students have to realize, as our country is realizing, that you can’t have everything,” Mr. Stepp said. “We all have to make tough choices.”

Write to Stephanie Simon at stephanie.simon@wsj.com