So far this year, Washoe County School District (WCSD) mother of three Christine Smith has spent $745 on necessary school supplies, class fees, school uniforms and athletic fees.
“Basically, I feel like every time I turn around, someone needs something for school. This year I really noticed the price increases with school supplies. Honestly, I don’t know how many families afford it. I try to be generous, especially because I know that teachers end up supplementing school supplies considerably.
During the first week of her son’s elementary school, parents were alerted to an upcoming fundraiser and a request for additional donations for the class. Classes often begin with a list of supplies sent home to parents. These total costs add up, especially with extra fee requests and donations of items like hand sanitizer and Kleenex for use in the classroom. As students progress through middle school and high school, costs increase, often in the form of tuition, course fees, and required expenses for extracurricular activities. In Nevada, total costs leading to a standard high school diploma average about $300, while courses leading to a Career and College Ready or Honors degree can cost over a thousand dollars more.
Since 2022, several states have limited what public schools can charge students. In 2012 California Forbidden all compulsory student fees. Recently, Utah passed a law requiring all districts to waive tuition for qualified students. In Illinois, Louisianaand Virginiaschools must notify parents of waivers. While this may be unheard of among Nevada parents, districts such as Auburn School District in Washington even went so far as to provide all the necessary school supplies to the students.
Civil rights organizations have noted the inequities associated with compulsory school fees. In a 2010 court case against the state of California, the ACLU said the use of fees “underscores the failure of state government leadership to ensure that schools receive the resources necessary to provide free and equal education.”
The California lawsuit touched on the uncomfortable fact that public school students can legally be discriminated against because of their economic circumstances. Federal law requires all public schools to post non-discrimination notices, but these statements do not include discrimination based on a student’s financial status. The limits of the law to protect poor students have led some states to regulate tuition fees.
In Nevada, most school districts mention “equity” in board policies, but in most cases this is the only official reference to fair treatment of poor students. Federal programs for homeless, migrant, or foster students cover a small portion of these low-income children and provide tuition assistance. Larger programs, such as the federally regulated program Title I, can help those not included in the above categories, but schools that receive Title I funding can still charge students. The lack of consistent and clearly stated waiver policies leaves families uncertain about the availability of help. For example, at Bonanza High School in Clark County, a Title I school, no waiver option is granted for CTE (career and technical) course fees, while AP class descriptions include a directive to “see their counselor” for a financial aid.
Without statewide waivers, schools must resort to a random compilation of charitable donations, fundraising events, and organizational assistance through family school partnerships or nonprofit organizations. Staff are mobilizing to provide disparate assistance, often while carrying out many other responsibilities. A WCSD teacher said: “One thing I know has always happened is that no one would be kicked out of a field trip or event for financial reasons – there is always a fund from the principal or families who donated. extra money to help pay those who couldn’t.
Regardless of these altruistic measures, school expenses continue to rise. The figures of the Bureau of Labor Statistics illustrate the dramatic increase in K12 spending. Like childcare and college, the cost of educating children between the ages of 5 and 18 outpaces inflation. Simultaneously, state funding for public education delays, leaving school districts to make up the difference in parent-provided supplies and course fees. And it has a dramatic impact on the most vulnerable students.
To research shows that low-income students often choose not to participate in paid courses and activities. Yet these are the very things that not only keep them in school, but also propel them into college. Across the country, students who receive free and reduced lunch have higher rates chronic absenteeism, less participation in extracurricular activities, and lower enrollment rates in Honors and AP courses. As a result, fewer poor students attend university.
Such statistics put Nevada students in particular danger. The high cost of living in the Las Vegas and Reno metropolitan areas is putting even middle-class families in trouble. For a family of four to achieve a modest but sufficient standard of living in northern Nevada, they would have to do $88,393 per year. Still more than half of all WCSD families earn less than that. Of these families, 16% receive social benefits. All the while, Nevada education spending remains terribly behind the national average.
Under the new student-centered funding plan, the state says the legislature must provide sufficient financial support to schools to ensure that school services and resources are equitableThe purpose of such legislation is that all students can “fully benefit from the Nevada educational system, regardless of their zip code, district, or environment.”
But try saying that to a student who’s been dissuaded from taking AP or Band classes because they can’t afford the fees.
In the meantime, districts and school staff will do what they can to level the playing field for students and wait for the state to catch up.
Shelley Buchanan writes on education, conservation, and social justice issues for Sierra Nevada Ally. She has resided in northern Nevada for forty years and has worked as an English teacher, school librarian and school technology specialist. Support his work here.
Founded in 2020, Sierra Nevada Ally is a self-sustaining, paywall-free 501c3 nonprofit publication, member of the non-profit Institute for Newsdelivering unique and differentiated reporting, factual news and explanatory journalism on the environment, conservation and public policy, while giving voice to writers, filmmakers, visual artists and performers. We count on the generosity of our readers and aligned partners.