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
- 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.
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
- 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.
- You have the right to communicate with your children’s teachers, principal, and school nurse as often as you see fit.
- You have the right to easily access and understand information about your children’s schools, school district, teachers, administrators, facilities, policies, procedures, and programs.
- 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.
- 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.
- You have the right to attend all public meetings, including PTA, Board of Education, and committee meetings.
- You have the right to complain, without fear of retaliation, to teachers, building and district administrators, and Board of Education.
- You have the right to attend Board of Education meetings and address the board during the public audience part of the meeting.
- 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.
- 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.