Streams

For City Parents, Frustration Over Rising Cost of Public School

Monday, June 25, 2012 - 09:24 PM

School budget cuts, rising expenses and grander ambitions for student activities have driven up the cost of sending a child to a New York City public school. Earlier this spring, SchoolBook asked parents to tell us about their school-related spending. Journalists followed up on the hundreds of responses we received, resulting in a series of reports on SchoolBook, in The New York Times and on WNYC. You can find previous reports here.

Ellen Goldstein, the mother of first-grade twins at Public School 130 in Brooklyn, recalls with a twinge of nostalgia certain items that came home from school this year. There was the all-about-fish book, the Popsicle picture frames and two tissue-paper roses for Mother’s Day — all made by her sons.

What Ms. Goldstein, 46, will not miss plucking from her children’s backpacks are the seemingly endless requests for money and supplies that also came home from their small school on the border of Kensington and Windsor Terrace.

It began in September, Ms. Goldstein said, when she and her 6-year-olds lugged in $300 worth of construction paper, index cards, markers and crayons requested by their teachers. Soon, she was regularly receiving Scholastic booklets and permission slips for trips to bowling alleys and pizza parlors that required $5, $6 and $7 to be stuffed into envelopes. The school also organized two photo drives, including one in which she was sent key chains and bookmarks with images of her children on them.

Unable to say no, she spent close to $90 — and that was in addition to the $90 for the first drive.

All told, Ms. Goldstein expects to have spent around $700 by the time the school year ends on Wednesday.

“I am completely sympathetic to why they have to do this,” she said. “But it really is surprising that we are being asked to give so much.”

New York City public school parents disagree on many things: the benefits of charter schools, the merits of gifted and talented programs, and what to do with failing schools. But as another academic year comes to a close, there is one thing many seem to agree on. As a result of several years of budget cuts, increasingly ambitious PTA’s and shifting ideas about who should foot the bill for public education, having a child in public school now involves a staggering amount of wallet-opening, with every year seeming to bring more by way of financial demands.

According to dozens of interviews and submissions from more than 400 public school parents to SchoolBook, the education blog of The New York Times, classroom supplies can cost $400. Fifth-grade graduation dues can be $95. Elementary-school yearbooks go for $30. At some Manhattan schools, it is no longer deemed excessive for a class parent to hand a teacher a $1,000 gift card as an end-of-year thank you, even though Education Department regulations prohibit teachers from accepting personal gifts.

And the days of the free class trip are more or less over: a third-grade overnight to a nearby campsite can cost $120, and for internationally minded high school students wishing to join classmates and a teacher in far-flung locales, $3,500 is not unusual.

Tina Manis, the mother of a sixth grader at New Voices School of Academic and Creative Arts in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, who spent $400 on school supplies this year, called the need for so much parental aid “criminal.”

“This is public school,” she said of New Voices. “They didn’t even have rulers or tape.”

An Education Department spokeswoman, Deidrea Miller, said that public school parents had paid for many of these items for years, and that assistance was available for those who could not.

But parents said that in recent years, they had noticed an increase in the sheer number of demands and the dollar amounts expected of them.

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education and history at New York University, said that by demanding more financial support from parents, the city’s PTAs, teachers and administrators were inadvertently altering long-held ideals about public education being free. “I don’t begrudge the people who are doing this,” he said. “But what they now have is a kind of suggested tuition.”

To raise money, many schools no longer make do with just one photo drive, but host two or three during the school year. Some, like Public School 41 in Greenwich Village, solicit the services of expensive professional photographers and ask them to do family portraits as a fund-raiser for $150 apiece.

And Naomi Cohn, the mother of a senior at Hunter College High School on the Upper East Side, has spent, along with her daughter, more than $580 on senior-year expenses — including $112 for the gift seniors gave to the school; $230 for the cap, gown, yearbook and diploma; $140 for a prom ticket; and $100 for a bus to cart her daughter and her friends around on the night of the event. When it came time for Ms. Cohn, a lawyer who was recently unemployed for two years, to respond to the PTA’s $1,200 suggested donation, she gave far less, with only a little bit of guilt.

“I might be more sensitive than other people,” she said. “But when I received those letters, it made me feel bad.”

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