Student fees pump up budgets for wealthier schools, leave others out in the cold

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

As one of the city’s elite selective high schools, Whitney Young received more than $480,000 additional money from the district last year. But that wasn’t its only financial advantage.

The school, on the Near West Side, also raked in more than $680,000 in fees. Each student was asked to pay  a general fee of $500, though students receiving a free or reduced-price lunch could apply for a waiver. In addition, there were extra costs to participate in sports teams and clubs, and with the financial support, Whitney Young–and other schools with similar fees and financial means–are more likely to offer these activities.

About two miles away in East Garfield Park, one of the city’s poorest communities, Manley High School collected less than $8,000 last year in fees–about $17 per student. A few clubs and teams collected some money, but most only brought in a few hundred dollars.

Whitney Young’s football team collected more than $12,000. Manley’s team collected about $2,500.

The sharp difference in the amount of cash that schools collect from families through fees is not accounted for in the published budgets provided by the district. Nor is it documented elsewhere by individual schools. But the windfall reaped by schools with middle-class and wealthier students contributes to disparities among schools–in the number and quality of special programs, elective classes and other activities that are offered.

At the many schools, like Manley, where most of the students are low-income students of color, fees don’t make sense: Students who qualify for a free or reduced-cost lunch get fee waivers. Plus, CPS policy maintains that there should be no consequences if parents don’t pay (though some schools will threaten to prevent students from graduating or going on field trips).

The disparity is not only true among city schools. Wealthy suburbs often have hefty fees in place that cover technology and supplies for classes. As in the city, fees at public suburban schools are often instituted in response to financial constraints—but poorer suburbs can’t generate the extra cash despite being stretched thin financially.

Working with the Better Government Association, Catalyst Chicago submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for documents showing internal financial accounts for all schools in Chicago. CPS denied the request, stating it would be too burdensome, but responded to a narrower request for information for 16 economically and geographically diverse schools.

The internal accounts reviewed by Catalyst showed that:

• Among six North Side elementary schools, including two magnet schools, the fees generated between $15,000 and $40,000 annually from parents. A survey of these elementary schools found that fees range from about $100 per student to $235.

• The three schools with large percentages of low-income students did not charge fees and brought in very little extra money. Bright Elementary School, a black and Latino school on the Southwest Side, and Langford in West Englewood, which is 98 percent black, collected no student fees and almost no additional revenue.

• Selective enrollment and magnet high schools, which have the fewest low-income and minority students, have the highest fees. Parents from the schools say that at the start of the school year, they often received bills of more than $500.  

“Unfair and inequitable”

Marguerite Roza, a national expert in school finance and a research associate professor at the University of Washington’s College of Education, says the collection of fees at public schools is “unfair and inequitable.” The only way to make it fair is to put the money into one central pot, she maintains. “I am against the notion of fees,” she says.

Roza is especially critical of fees that students have to pay in order to take certain classes or to participate in activities.

While schools tell parents they are paying activity fees or technology fees, it is really a question of priorities, Roza says. Often, budgets become tight as school districts pay to give raises to teachers or to help support a special program.

“Parents will happily pay a supply fee because they want their children to keep having supplies,” she says. “But if you told them it was to keep a perk for teachers, they wouldn’t be so happy.”

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey says the district does not monitor the collection of fees–though starting in the 2009-2010 school year, CPS forced schools to put all the money in a specific bank and report why the money was collected. McCaffrey also says it would not be right to put the money into one pot and distribute it equally to all schools, maintaining that doing so would constitute a tax on more well-to-do parents.

But even in schools with middle and upper-middle-class families, charging big fees can amount to a heavy burden.

When one mother got the letter this spring offering her daughter a spot at a magnet school on the Northwest Side, she was elated, not only for the opportunity, but also for the financial break of avoiding private school tuition.

But she was shocked to learn the list of items that she would have to spend money on—the school has four lists of supplies, plus she would have to pay for uniforms and the pricey after-school program. On top of those costs, the school charges a general student fee of about $235. Altogether, she estimated that she would have to spend almost $1,000 for her daughter at STEM Elementary in the West Loop.

“I was floored,” says the mother, who did not want to be identified because her daughter has had a hard time transitioning into the school. She was so surprised that she has since repeated her story to everyone she meets. Some of her friends in the south suburbs tell her they have fees of about $100, but none pay as much as she does.

STEM Magnet Principal Maria McManus says her school has a $100 fee for supplies, plus a $135 fee for field trips. She says that the students go on field trips once every four to six weeks, and the trips are costly; last year, she spent $18,000 just for buses. Some of the field trips are related to the school’s academic focus (on science, technology, engineering and math); some complement other areas in the curriculum. Last year, students went to Legoland and to the Google headquarters.

McManus says that between 90 and 95 percent of the parents pay the fees, and she very rarely hears a complaint.

“In order for us to do what we do for the kids, it costs,” she says. “I am very transparent.” Only half of her students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, so the school doesn’t get much money from federal grants for poor students.

“The parents really want a well-rounded school,” she says. “They are not paying [what they would have to pay] for the British School” (an expensive private school on the city’s North Side).

Carolyn Brown, a teacher and member of the local school council at Kelly High School on the Southwest Side, has a daughter transferring from Whitney Young to Kelly this year. If she were to stay at Young, her fees would be more than $500 once all the costs for courses were included.

Brown says that at Kelly, school officials can’t charge as much because parents simply don’t have the money to pay. And even though low-income students can get waivers, sometimes they and their parents feel ashamed to ask for one. Every year, some lower-income students who owe the school hundreds of dollars have to pay in order to graduate because they never got waivers. It is hard to do back waivers, she says.

Brown doesn’t think that there should be more control from central office because setting fees is one of the small things that local school councils have the power to do. Also, parents trust local school councils more, she says.

“With the school fees, there is a level of responsibility being shifted,” she says. “With budgets being chipped away, the fees are being used to fill in the gaps and the schools with more resources have more of an ability to do so. It is another example of why schools are inequitable.”

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