So far this year, Christine Smith, a parent of three children in Washoe County School District (WCSD), has spent $745 for required school supplies, class fees, school uniforms, and athletics fees.
“Basically, I feel like every time I turn around someone needs something for school. This year I definitely noticed the price increases with school supplies. I honestly do not know how many families afford it. I try to be generous — especially because I know teachers end up heavily supplementing classroom supplies.”
During the first week of her son’s elementary school, parents were alerted of an upcoming fundraiser and a request for additional class donations. Classes often start with a supply list sent home to parents. These total costs add up, especially with requests of additional charges, and donations of items like hand sanitizer and Kleenex for class use. As students progress to middle and high school, costs increase, often in the form of student fees, course fees, and mandatory expenses for extracurriculars. In Nevada, total costs leading to a Standard high school diploma average around $300, while coursework leading to a Career and College Ready or Honors diploma can be over a thousand dollars more.
As of 2022, several states have restricted what public schools can charge students. In 2012 California outlawed all mandatory student fees. Recently, Utah passed a law mandating all districts waive course fees for qualified students. In Illinois, Louisiana, and Virginia, schools must notify parents of waivers. Though it may be unheard of among Nevada parents, districts such as Auburn School District in Washington have even gone so far as to provide all necessary school supplies to students.
Civil rights organizations have noted the inequities associated with mandatory school fees. In a 2010 lawsuit against the state of California, the ACLU stated the use of fees, “underscores the failure of leadership in state government to ensure that schools are provided the resources necessary to provide a free and equal education.”
The California lawsuit touched upon the uncomfortable fact that students in public schools can legally be discriminated against based on their economic circumstances. Federal law requires that all public schools post notices of non-discrimination, but such statements do not include discrimination based on a student’s financial condition. The limits of the law to protect poor students have led some states to regulate school fees.
In Nevada, most school districts mention “equity” in board policies, but in most cases, this is the only official reference to the equitable treatment of poor students. Federal programs for students who are homeless, migrants, or in foster care cover a small portion of these low-income children and offer assistance with student fees. Broader programs, such as the federally regulated Title I, can help those not included in the above categories, yet schools that receive Title I funding can still charge students. The lack of consistent and clearly stated waiver policies leave families unsure if assistance is available. For example, at Bonanza High School in Clark County, a Title I school, no waiver option is given for CTE (Career and Technical) course fees, while AP class descriptions include a directive to “see their counselor” for financial assistance.
Without statewide waivers, schools must resort to a haphazard compilation of charitable donations, fundraising events, and organizational assistance via Family School Partnerships or nonprofits. Staff rally together to provide a patchwork of aid, often while attending to many other responsibilities. One WCSD teacher stated, “One thing I know has always happened is nobody would be excluded from a school field trip or event due to finances – there is always a principal’s fund or families who gave extra money to help pay for those who couldn’t.”
Regardless of these altruistic measures, school expenses continue to rise. Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics illustrate the dramatic increase of K12 expenses. Like childcare and college, the cost of education for children between the ages of 5 to 18 is outpaces inflation. Simultaneously, state funding for public education lags, leaving school districts to make up the difference in parent-provided supplies and course fees. And this has a dramatic impact on the most vulnerable students.
Research shows that low-income students often choose not to participate in courses and activities that have fees. Yet these are the very things that not only keep them in school, but also propel them towards college. Nationwide, students who receive Free and Reduced Lunch have higher rates of chronic absenteeism, less participation in extracurricular activities, and lower rates of enrollment in Honors and AP courses. As a result, fewer poor students attend college.
Such statistics put Nevada students especially at risk. High living costs in the metro areas of Las Vegas and Reno cause even middle-class families to struggle. For a family of four to attain a modest yet adequate standard of living in Northern Nevada, they would have to make $88,393 a year. Yet more than half of all families in WCSD make less than that. Of these families,16% receive welfare benefits. All the while, Nevada’s educational spending remains woefully behind the national average.
Under the new Pupil Centered Funding plan, the state asserts that the legislature must provide enough financial support for schools to ensure that school services and resources are equitable, The purpose of such legislation is that all students can “take full advantage of Nevada’s education system, regardless of their zip code, district, or setting.”
But try telling that to a student dissuaded from taking AP classes or Band because they cannot afford the fees.
In the meantime, districts and school staff will do what they can to equalize student opportunities and wait for the state to catch up.
Shelley Buchanan writes about education, conservation, and social justice issues for the Sierra Nevada Ally. She is a forty-year resident of Northern Nevada having worked as an English teacher, school librarian, and school technology specialist. Support her work here.
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