Pay to Play: The Creeping Privatization of Public Education

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A girl watches a cheerleading squad practice outside.

Participating in activities like dance, sports, and even graduation ceremonies are the norm for well-off families, but costs for gear, uniforms, and equipment are prohibitive for many. Credit: CreativeCommons / Beth Rankin.


This is the first of a short series of posts by Lita Kurth on the privatization of education.
Should the parent who paid the most get the best seat at graduation? Should the children of wealthy donors get private time with public school teachers? Should a choice parking space in front of the school be reserved for the highest bidder? Anyone with a child in a California public school knows how thoroughly riddled with private-school fundraising many schools have become. I admit to anguished feelings: I can’t entirely oppose fund raising because without such stopgaps, public schools have no art, theatre, debate, music, robotics, sports, or field trips – and some public schools lack all of these! In many cases, generous and public-spirited parents try to fill the enormous gap left by Proposition 13 and raise funds for all the kids, but inevitably, when a small group coalesces around a favored activity, one in which their own children participate, the precious cornerstone and sign of democracy – universal access – is marred, and at times, completely eroded.
What was once supplied to all as a matter of course — caps and gowns, choir robes, field trip entrance fees and transportation, pencils, paper, special celebrations, art supplies, science supplies, textbooks, is now the burden of families either in whole or in part. At my daughter’s San Jose school, rental of caps and gowns has now gone up to $50, and the official senior celebration day at a local amusement park costs $14. AP tests cost $95 each although those receiving free or reduced lunches get a discount.
Public Schools, Private Gain
At numerous public schools, parents run small businesses (sometimes family nonprofits) that teach dancing, sports, art, music, nutrition, self-esteem, etc. I have no complaint about parents offering classes – I have offered classes myself — but using school facilities for private profit is where the rub is. At one high school, tutoring for SAT and ACT tests is conducted for a fee by an enterprising teacher who runs these classes after school under the auspices of a private company, The Tutoring Club, using school facilities. There’s a discount; on the other hand, what company wouldn’t offer a discount in order to get a virtually guaranteed market and school-endorsed advertising?
Sometimes those private activities conflict with a school’s public function, and then a little power struggle occurs over who gets to use the library or the cafeteria (which often doubles as the theatre). The luckier public schools boast foundations that in some cases raise literally millions of dollars, but if the parents and schools don’t actively and constantly pursue democracy, those boards can become little fiefdoms exerting pressure in hiring and firing teachers and principals, in deciding how school property will be used before and after school, and lobbying for pet projects that only serve a few. I know of a case in which parents approached a principal and quite baldly demanded a quid pro quo: I gave this much and I expect this favor in return.
But it’s usually murkier. Some activities are theoretically open to all, but known to be run by particular parents who may or may not welcome new participants. Quite naturally, those parents may have a long-term relationship with the teacher of that subject. When does privileged access become unfair advantage? What if the teacher displeases the biggest donor, the chief fund raiser? Will there still be an art program, a music program, science enrichment?
Public-private schools: Segregation?
Some events are neither clearly public nor private. They occur under the school’s umbrella, for example, a tour of Eastern Europe conducted by a teacher for students, but seem to be announced after arrangements have been made; official school letters call for fundraising, but it isn’t clear how students found out about these opportunities. In any case, no one is talking about sending every public student to Europe although all are urged to support it. At my daughter’s school, all students were supposed to have the opportunity to learn to swim, but the swimming unit in her regular PE class was cancelled so the water polo team could use the pool at that time. Never during her two years of PE did she have a swimming class. We were privileged to give her private lessons, but as for me, I learned to swim in the middle school pool. I would have been one of those who didn’t learn to swim.
Textbooks are the one thing that’s rock bottom sacred, provided by schools without question, right? But teachers regularly send home lists of books that both parents and students understand they are responsible for buying. I bought no fewer than five books for my daughter’s English class, several of which ended up never being read. We could afford it, so it was only a minor annoyance, but imagine if we had given up a necessity in order to purchase the books. The school, when I complained, hastened to assure me that schools cannot require parents to buy textbooks, but how is it that teachers haven’t gotten that message?
Unintentional Exclusion
At one San Jose high school graduation, tennis shoes and flip-flops are forbidden as are jeans and shirts without collars. What this means is that some families will have to come up with an entirely new wardrobe.
A poster showing corporate profits rising and school budgets falling.

Credit: CreativeCommons / Jagz Mario.


Perhaps some middle-class readers are asking, “What’s fifty dollars?” the way I was asked rhetorically, “Who can’t afford community college?” The answer is: fifty dollars is beyond the means of a surprisingly large number of people, very likely people who strive with all their might to “pass” at school, to hide the fact that their family of four lives in one room or half a living room with a curtain divider. Or maybe they have a whole apartment — one that requires 70 percent of their income with both parents and teens working.
“But there are thrift stores!” comes the rebuttal, clearly not from people who have shopped at thrift stores for requirements. A thrift store is purely hit or miss. One day they may have no shoes in your size or shoes so beat up or out of date that wearing them would mean public humiliation.
Charity, Not Equal Opportunity
At one Palo Alto high school, the uniform and gear for a cheerleader costs a whopping $500. Of course, cheerleading isn’t a requirement, but one can easily see how opportunities for growth and participation, the kind that might make a difference in college or scholarship applications, are withheld from those without an extra $500. Or if funds are available, students must 1) know they exist, 2) self-identity as “needy,” and 3) go, cap in hand, to request charity. Some have too much pride to do that.
By amazing coincidence or synchronicity, I had finished the first draft of this post, when I sat down to read the May 21st New York Review of Books. Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis was reviewed, including this poignant excerpt about the cost of participating in sports: “ask if your school has a pay-to- play policy. Explain that waivers aren’t worth the paper they’re written on because they force students to wear a virtual yellow star, saying ‘I’m so poor my parents can’t afford the regular fee.'” (27)
I do want to say that my daughter’s school makes regular efforts to supply necessities and even bounty to the poorer students that they know about and has raised up to a thousand dollars per recipient during the holidays, but that’s only several dozen in a population of 1600. The school is a Title One school, which means forty percent of the students receive free or reduced fee lunches.
Like so many questions of public opportunity and democracy, this one once was answered in the affirmative. It’s so tedious and infuriating to fight again for a given, a no-brainer, a right, something as basic as public education. Those who argue the loudest for competition and market forces are not familiar enough with neighborhoods where competition for basic things — a bicycle, a jacket, lunch money — is ferocious. Being a winner there looks remarkably brutal, and being a loser, frightening to consider. But somehow, even there, the majority are not criminals, and some are saints. But we aren’t doing right by them. These are the people the official marketplace, and now our schools, have left behind to survive as best they can.
What Can We Do in the Meantime?
One might think, “File a lawsuit!” is the answer, but in some cases, a lawsuit has made things worse. One Peninsula school was forced by lawsuit to fund every student’s participation in every activity, and a number of wealthy parents who once paid for their children’s participation, simply freeloaded. Since the funds were still privately raised, the school had to cut or reduce activities. There are ways to ameliorate the situation, however.
1) Make sure all teachers know and announce that buying textbooks is not required.
2) Make sure all parents know buying textbooks is not required.
3) Make financial aid requests confidential and universal. For example, hand out forms for all students to return, not just those requesting aid. The rest will mark “no financial aid requested” on the same form.
4) One or two token scholarships are not enough. Provide enough “scholarships” for every student who wants to participate whether that be a science enrichment course, a chess club, a sport, or a whole-class recreation day. It seems fair for parents with ability to pay to subsidize poorer students if public facilities are being used.
5) Make sure every student has access to a computer with internet. That might mean extending school library hours. It might mean lobbying furiously for your city to open its public libraries on Sundays.
It might mean actively seeking input from all parents at your school and not restricting yourself to the internet. Whatever you do even for one student, your efforts will make a difference.

Wisconsin native Lita Kurth is a community college teacher, writer, and public-education-and-affordable-housing-activist in the South Bay where she also teaches private creative writing workshops. A member of the Working Class Studies Association, she has written a yet-to-be-published novel,The Rosa Luxemburg Exotic Dance Collective.