Is Public Education Really Free?

As we look forward to a brand new school year, parents are busily getting their children ready for the first day of school. And that means spending money. The average parent will spend $688 this year equipping children with back to school clothing and supplies. Most schools prepare lists of essential school supplies that parents are required to furnish. Depending on the level of the student, these range from notebooks to laptops.

In our difficult economic environment, this is can be a burden to struggling families. According to figures released by the US Census Bureau earlier this year, the median household income is dropping and more Americans are living in poverty — about 15% of the population.

With more families living below the poverty line since the 1990s, income dropping and rampant unemployment, parents are increasingly concerned about expenses. In the 2012-2013 school budget vote, many districts scaled back programs and cut staff to keep tax increases low. But is public education really free? Just because parents pay taxes doesn’t mean that they do not have to contribute to their children’s education. In addition to school supplies, here are some of the extras parents are typically paying for:

  • Tissues — To save district funds, many elementary schools ask parents to send in boxes of tissues and other supplies for use by the entire class.
  • School Spirit wear, such as tee shirts, sweatshirts, sweatpants, etc., are popular items at all levels.  Students may be asked to wear these for special events at school.
  • Musical instruments, purchase or rental
  • Sports equipment and uniforms
  • Field Trips
  • Fundraising — School, PTA, Special Interest, e.g. sports, music, theater.
  • Celebrations, such as birthdays, holidays, special events

What Can Parents Do?

  • For back to school, PTAs can contract to provide boxed set of school supplies by grade at a cost less than shopping for supplies on your own. The school will supply a list of school supplies by grade. For example, Staples does this through http://www.schoolkidz.com. Ask your PTA to investigate this money saving option.
  • Parents can lobby the principal or superintendent of schools and request that fundraising activities be reduced and consolidated. Parents may prefer to write one check for a set amount instead of being compelled into participating in a perpetual round of sales and fundraisers.
  • If parents believe that the cost and incidence of field trips are excessive, parents have the right to question school’s field trip practices and ask that guidelines be established to limit frequency, distance, and cost per field trip, e.g., two per grade at a limit of $25. Also, parents should request that they are informed at the beginning of the school year what their expenses will be for field trips.
  • Request that your school limit expectations for children’s birthdays at school.
  • Lobby to scale back spirit wear and unnecessary sports paraphernalia, such as sweatshirts and sweat pants. It’s hard to say no when everyone else is buying it and your child wants it too.
  • Volunteer with your presence and skills at school and at special events and fundraisers instead of with your pocketbook.
  • Parents should know that all schools provide help to families who cannot afford school-associated expenses. Don’t be afraid to ask your principal if you need financial assistance.
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News and Views – What Do You Think?

This week the news has been full of education stories of interest to parents. So many, that instead of giving my opinion on one topic, I’ve compiled a list for you of six of the most provocative issues.  I’d love to hear your opinion on any or all of these. Please leave your comments on the bottom of the page or tweet me @DrMerylAin. 

1. The Today Show reported that French schools have banned ketchup in an effort to promote healthy eating and combat childhood obesity. As anchor Savannah Guthrie pointed out, “First they give us French fries, and then they take away the ketchup!” 

Q: How healthy is your child’s lunch program? Is there anything you would like to see banned?

http://www.bing.com/videos/watch/video/why-are-european-schools-banning-ketchup/6g37xqg 

2. For parents who are worried about their children’s whereabouts, there’s a new app that makes checking in a game. “Our view is that what makes kids safer is communication and being close to their folks,” said the new iPhone app’s co-creator Matthew Bromberg, “And I don’t want to know where my kid is on the map every single moment. I just want to know what’s going on.”

Q: Do you agree or is this too much control for parents to exert over their children?   http://mashable.com/2011/10/19/imok/

3. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon repealed teacher-student Facebook restrictions. The controversial law had limited online chats between teachers and students and some alleged that it threatened free-speech rights. 

Q: Do you think students and teachers should be Facebook friends?

http://www.edweek.org/dd/articles/2011/10/21/463731usteachersonfacebook_ap.html via @educationweek 

4. Some elite private schools in New York have reduced the burden of homework on their students.

Q: Do your kids have too much, too little, or the right amount of homework? http://nyti.ms/oWpCn1 

5. Idaho schools will tie merit pay to factors such as parent involvement. In some south-central Idaho schools, teacher bonuses will be based on parent participation, including attendance at parent-teacher conferences. 

Q: Will this promote or stifle parent-teacher relationships?   http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/10/24/464180idteachersmeritpay_ap.html

6. Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned educator and creativity expert, discusses changing education paradigms in a must-see provocative video. He takes on the education establishment, arguing that today’s students are not being properly educated. 

Q: Do you agree or disagree? Let’s discuss.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U&feature=share


Are Schools Getting Too Carried Away with Technology?

When my grandmother died in 1978 at almost 90, I thought the technological changes she had experienced in her lifetime would never be duplicated. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Technology is now changing at a dizzying pace, and parents and educators have to decide what’s best for our children. It’s a difficult conundrum with dueling points of view.

On one hand, most schools have embraced technology, spending huge amounts of money on upgrading electronic equipment that soon becomes obsolete. First it was the installation of computer labs, then the purchase of laptops, followed by i-Pads. I admit I drooled when Smart Boards were installed in a district in which I was working as a central office administrator. I secretly wished I could be a high school social studies teacher again, and with the touch of a finger take my students to sites that would propel great class discussions.

But technology should be taken just so far. What is the wisdom of turning cell phones into teaching tools in the classroom? Newsday reports that an Amityville social studies teacher recently asked his 11th graders to use their personal cell phones to text a response to a poll about a presidential speech they had just watched in the classroom. According to the article, this is part of a growing local and national trend.

Many other school districts, however, still bar students from bringing their cell phones and smart phones to school – and for good reason. They have been viewed as a distraction, even a dangerous one. Do we really want students checking their e-mail and texting during class? Do we want them using it to make dates during class, surf their favorite sites on the Web, cheat, or even engage in drug dealing? As much as schools will try to restrict its use in school, some students won’t be able to control themselves.

Even if you argue that most kids won’t engage in such nefarious behavior, whatever happened to raising your hand and having a discussion? Do our children have to be tethered to machines 24/7?

Apparently, some people in the computer industry don’t think so. A recent article in the New York Times pointed out that some of Silicon Valley’s technology leaders send their children to schools without computers! They think it’s easy enough to pick up computer skills, and that what’s really important is great teaching that actively engages kids in learning. Engagement is really the issue. Does technology foster engagement or inhibit it?

In addition, public schools have to consider the cost. Computers in education are here to stay but they need to be used judiciously — always with the goal of fostering student engagement and enabling critical and creative thinking.

If cell phones are now becoming the teaching tool du jour, then what do public schools do with the millions of dollars in computer equipment they bought? With built-in obsolescence, it’s critically important that schools don’t spend mindlessly on the latest cool gadget, only to abandon it for a better one a few years later.

Who is watching the technology store in our public school districts? Every year, superintendents and chief technology officers present a computer budget to the board of education and the public. As we go forward in this difficult economy, there needs to be accountability, research, evidence, and a rationale for future spending on electronic devices. Most of all, schools require a clear vision for how they plan on engaging students in learning – both with and without computers. 

http://www.newsday.com/long-island/educators-eye-cellphones-as-teaching-tools-1.3249660 

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1


The Hidden Costs of Public Education

About 15 percent of American households were living in poverty last year and that number is increasing as the median household income drops, according to newly released statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

That means the official poverty rate has reached its highest level since 1993. That translates to a total of 46.2 million people – the largest number since the government began tracking poverty in the 1950s. And because the poverty level for a family of four begins with an annual income of less than $22,314, many experts believe that a family of four needs to make twice that to feel secure.

Unemployment is predicted to remain above 9 percent for the foreseeable future, and parents are increasingly concerned about expenses and inflation. In last May’s school budget vote, most districts mindful of taxpayers’ pocketbooks scaled back programs and cut staff to keep tax increases low.

But is public education really free? Just because parents pay taxes doesn’t mean they do not have to contribute to their children’s education. Here are some of the extras parents are typically paying for:

  • School Supplies: The average parent spent $600 this year equipping their children with back to school clothing and supplies. Most schools prepared lists of essential school supplies that parents were required to furnish. Depending on the grade of the student, these ranged from notebooks to laptops.
  • Tissues: To save district funds, many elementary schools ask parents to send in boxes of tissues and other supplies for use by the entire class.
  • School Spirit garments: T-shirts, sweatshirts, sweatpants, etc., are popular items at all levels.  Students may be asked to wear these for special events at school.
  • Musical instruments: purchase or rental
  • Sports equipment and uniforms
  • Field Trips
  • Fundraising: School, PTA, Special Interest, e.g. sports, music, theater.
  • Celebrations: birthdays, holidays, special events

What Can Parents Do?

  • For back to school, PTAs can contract to provide boxed sets of school supplies by grade at a cost less than shopping for supplies on your own. The school will supply a list of school supplies by grade. For example, Staples does this through http://www.schoolkidz.com. Ask your PTA to investigate this money-saving option.
  • Parents can lobby the principal or superintendent of schools and request that fundraising activities be reduced and consolidated. Parents may prefer to write one check for a set amount instead of being compelled into participating in a perpetual round of sales and fundraisers.
  • If parents believe that the cost and incidence of field trips are excessive, parents have the right to question school’s field trip practices and ask that guidelines be established to limit frequency, distance, and cost per field trip, e.g. two per grade with a limit of $25. Also, parents should request that they be informed at the beginning of the school year of what their expenses will be for field trips.
  • Request that your school limit expectations for children’s birthdays at school.
  • Lobby to scale back spirit wear and unnecessary sports paraphernalia, such as sweatshirts and sweat pants. It’s hard to say no when everyone else is buying it and your child wants it too.
  • Volunteer with your presence and skills at school and at special events and fundraisers instead of with your pocketbook.
  • Parents should know that all schools provide help to families who cannot afford school-associated expenses. Don’t be afraid to ask your principal if you need financial assistance.

Knowledge Plus Participation Equals Power

I cannot emphasize enough how much it benefits your child for you to be actively involved in his or her school. Over the years, I have attended countless PTA and Board of Education meetings as a parent, teacher, and administrator, and I will tell you that the prescription for power is knowledge and participation. I have come to understand the crucial role parents play not only in their own children’s education, but in determining the quality of the schools they attend. Indeed, research indicates that the more involved parents are, the better the schools. Conversely, when parents are uninvolved, uninformed – or worse – apathetic, their children and their schools suffer.

The current bus situation in the Smithtown School Districtis a perfect case in point of why parents have to be informed and involved.  On May 17, 2011, a transportation referendum to reduce busing limits was passed by voters inSmithtown. The minute it was passed there was an outcry from parents that the proposition was confusing: they didn’t know what they were voting for and, worst of all, that they were unaware that a vote on transportation had been scheduled.  Parents were up in arms that their children’s safety was being jeopardized and that their lives would be in danger because they would now have to walk to school on streets without sidewalks and cross large thoroughfares where numerous pedestrians have been injured and killed.

Clearly, this debate should have taken place before the vote.  But not enough parents were aware – until it was almost too late.  After the vote, large numbers of parents began to systematically lobby the Board of Education for a revote.  They circulated petitions, discussed the topic at PTA meetings, wrote letters to the board and to the newspapers, and came to board meetings en masse. This impassioned and organized effort had the desired results, and the board scheduled a new vote for September 19. Stay tuned for the results.

There is no question that parents are their children’s best advocates, but parents can’t be effective unless they are informed; they need to play with a full deck.  They need the facts, and they need tools and tactics. My mission is to empower parents to better understand and navigate their children’s schools with the insider information, unvarnished truth, and useful strategies I have acquired in the trenches and at the top levels in public and nonpublic schools. I fully understand that each child has only one chance to experience a particular grade in a school. My passion is caring. I wish that all schools would operate from an ethic of caring – understanding and meeting each child’s needs with respect and sensitivity.  My goal is to help parents make the schools more accountable for the benefit of their children.


Beware of the Tiger – Parents’ Bill of Rights

When my brother was in fifth grade, he had persistent nightmares about his teacher Mr. X. In his dreams, Mr. X. was a huge tiger that was attempting to devour him. Uncharacteristically, my mother made an appointment with the principal to discuss the matter. I don’t know what transpired during that meeting, but my brother was immediately transferred to another class – and the nightmares stopped.

It was unusual for my mother to complain – about anything. Indeed, 50 years ago it was rare for any parent to voice an opinion about what went on in their children’s schools.  Most people had the attitude that the school was always right. This has changed somewhat over time. When my kids were in school, some parents spoke up, but the majority still implicitly trusted their schools. Conventional wisdom was that if you complained, you might be considered a nuisance and this would reflect poorly on your child.

Surprisingly, I still encounter parents who are afraid of retaliation against their child if they have a grievance.  Actually, the opposite is true. In my official capacity, I have seen time and again, that the parent who advocates for his or her child gets better results than the parent who remains silent.

As we begin a new school year, the first thing to remember is that you need not be shy when it comes to advocating for your children. It is your right and your responsibility. You know better than anyone that this is your child’s only chance to experience kindergarten or sixth grade or 12th grade. You want your child to have the best possible experience in that particular grade despite budget woes, logistical problems, or personnel issues. Here’s a Parents’ Bill of Rights to help you be a better advocate for your children in school.

Parents’ Bill of Rights

  1. You have the right to be your children’s best advocate and to expect that their unique and special needs are met by the schools in a safe and supportive learning environment in each grade in each school year.
  2. You have the right to communicate with your children’s teachers, principal, and school nurse as often as you see fit.
  3. You have the right to easily access and understand information about your children’s schools, school district, teachers, administrators, facilities, policies, procedures, and programs.
  4. You have the right to have access to your children’s educational records, information regarding services offered by the schools, and expectations about your children’s instructional programs, grading criteria, attendance, and behavior.
  5. You have the right to be treated with respect, fairness, and understanding, free of discrimination and prejudice, by all staff, faculty, and administration in your children’s schools and school district.
  6. You have the right to attend all public meetings, including PTA, Board of Education, and committee meetings.
  7. You have the right to complain, without fear of retaliation, to teachers, building and district administrators, and Board of Education.
  8. You have the right to attend Board of Education meetings and address the board during the public audience part of the meeting.
  9. You have the right to know official complaint procedures within the school, school district, and outside agencies, and to pursue them if necessary, without fear of retaliation.
  10. You have the right to ensure that your children are learning in safe, healthy, and caring schools, free of discrimination, prejudice, bullying, and harassment, and that their physical, emotional, social, academic, and special needs are met on a daily basis.

Back-to- School List for Parents: No Trips to Staples Required

The Back-to-School List – I admit I still shudder when I hear it. My most desperate memory was banging on the door of a locked Staples store minutes before 6 p.m. on Labor Day because my son needed a scientific calculator. The staff insisted it was already six 0’clock and that the store was closed. I begged, but to no avail. Fortunately, we all survived that trauma, purchasing the calculator later in the week. My son went on to graduate from high school and even college, but the memory of that ordeal remains.

The average parent will spend $600 this year per child on school supplies, clothes, backpacks, and sports equipment. And I suspect that many parents will be as intense about their children’s Back-to-School List as I was. Will the correct backpack heighten or lessen a child’s self-esteem, and lead to success? We really don’t know. But what I do know is that preparing your kids for school is only half the battle to ensure a successful school year. Parents, too, have to be prepared, as full partners with the schools. From my perspective, it’s not enough to obsess about the list the school gives you. The list they don’t give you is equally, if not more, important. Here’s my list for parents, one that will serve you and your children well in the coming school year. And no trips to Staples are required!

Top 10 Back-to-School List for Parents

  1. Know the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of all your children’s teachers, principal, other school administrators, and school nurse.
  2. Find out if anything that might affect your child has changed since the last school year. With budget cuts, schools have reduced services and personnel, so just don’t assume that everything is the same. Are time schedules the same? Does your child still have bus service? Are there any late buses? Does your school district still offer full-day kindergarten? Is the person you expected to be your child’s teacher still there, or has she been excessed or moved? Does the school have the same principal and assistant principals? Have sports or music or art been reduced?
  3. Know your school and school district websites, and check them frequently for calendar changes, meeting announcements and minutes, news, policies and procedures, and other information.
  4. Find out how your school communicates important information with parents and then be alert to those messages. Is it by automated phone message, e-mail blasts, electronically through systems such as Parent Portal, newsletters, snail-mail, or in your kids’ backpacks?
  5. Keep the school calendar in an accessible area and check it frequently.
  6. Find out when Meet-the-Teacher evenings are held, and do your best to attend them for each of your children even if they’re seniors in high school. If you can’t attend, contact the teachers to let them know you are an interested and involved parent.
  7. Know when PTA meetings are held, attend them, and become an active member. This is the single, best way to keep informed and become involved in your children’s schools.
  8. Know when and where Board of Education meetings are held, attend them, and feel free to voice your opinion during the public participation part of the meeting if you have something important you want to share.  You must sign up to speak before the meeting.
  9. Know the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of the Board of Education members and the District Clerk. In public school districts, trustees are elected by the residents and are usually responsive to their constituents’ opinions and problems.
  10. Know the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of your superintendent of Schools and other districtwide administrators. If your child has a particular issue, such as a medical problem, food allergy, or learning disability, it’s important to know the name and contact information for the central office administrator in charge of that issue.  Although it is always desirable to follow the chain of command, i.e., teacher or school nurse, then principal, sometimes it’s necessary to go to a higher level in advocating for your child. Be proactive and have that information at your fingertips in case it’s needed.