The XX Factor

When Public Schools Go Pay-To-Play

How much should an AP English class run you in a public high school? At Dakota Ridge High School in Littleton, Colo., it’s $75 (plus a fee of $90 if you want to take the AP test). Basic English will run you $8. It’s not clear which classes would actually be free. Maybe civics?

Based on the WSJ ‘s reporting , paying for classes, as well as for sports or activities, isn’t a tiny faux trend, but a nationwide answer to shrinking budgets. Pay-to-play drama club, et al., isn’t really new: Most high school clubs have long had some form of “dues” that went toward club activities. But fees for classes, and particularly fees that go up for more advanced classes, are a highly debatable practice. As for fees for sports, like the no-exceptions track team fee in Medina, Ohio, that immediately reduced the team from 191 members to 92? Track may be an educational frill, but charging $660 for it did make me wonder how much the kids running around the gym in the PSA for Michelle Obama’s “FIT” initiative had to pay for the privilege.

The trouble with my outrage (and I am kind of outraged) is that when I say those fees are debatable, I mean it. Here’s 70-year-old Joyce Harris, who voted against a tax hike in Medina that would have funded track and other programs: “We can’t afford to get our teeth fixed because it’s too expensive,” she says. Why should she have to pay for “little Joey’s football”? Most states are constitutionally obligated to provide a free education, and all do. But what is an education? Is football, or track, or even advanced English, a part of it? German? Chess? Band?

In one sense, taxpayers like Harris are shortsighted when they vote against funding for an education that they won’t directly use. When a community educates its young people well enough to produce the nurses, business owners, and officials it needs (and not to be, instead, a drain on resources), everyone benefits. I’m sure Harris would prefer not to live in a town with an uneducated police force, and she might even prefer that those officers not weigh 350 lbs each. But it’s tough to measure her share of the value of that prospect against a trip to the dentist, and even tougher to figure out where that value comes from, and at what point the investment in it ceases to pay off. As Collene Van Noord, a school superintendent in Pennsylvania, told the WSJ , “If we can pass on the added costs of some of our more expensive courses to direct users, it seems more fair than to pass them on to the entire community.” Even if (she doesn’t say) passing on those higher costs means some kids will have to take a pass.

Hovering over all this is the entire question of how to revamp our nation’s educational system, which few would argue fails far more students than it should. No taxpayer, having read Joel Klein’s ” The Failure of American Schools ” in June’s Atlantic Monthly , would willingly vote to give more money to a system as dysfunctional as the one Klein writes about. If, as the WSJ writes, 80 percent of costs in most school districts are personnel costs, but, as Klein says, school districts like New York City must continue to pay tenured teachers (including one convicted of sexual misconduct) whom union-approved arbitrators refuse to terminate, even if neither the city nor the union wants the teachers back in the classroom-if those things are both true, how can anyone trust that district, or any other district, to spend its money wisely?

Harris may say she voted against that tax increase because she can’t afford the dentist. But if she trusted her community to make the right choices with her money, she might have felt differently about what probably amounted to no more than a few dollars a day. But very few school districts, particularly those in areas most in need of more funding (and with students least able to pay additional fees) still have our trust. Our current educational system isn’t just failing many of its students. It’s failing all of us. We can’t get an honest discussion going about whether a fee for band class might be acceptable while a fee for chemistry really is not until we regain our sense that most of the money we put into public education is well-spent. Until we do that, every Joyce Harris in the country is going to hold onto her wallet.