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In the World of Economic Development, Parents are on a Par with Criminals

July 22, 2017

Blogger Jeff Bryant seems to find especially egregious examples of government leaders’ declarations about the value of public education. In a post published by the Education Opportunity Network and picked up by Common Dreams Mr. Bryant reports on a presentation given by alderman Joe Roddy in St. Louis Mo. advocating the construction of a new high-end apartment building in that city:

In a slide show titled “How the City Makes & Spends Money,” Roddy, a Democrat mind you, laid out a hierarchy of those who “make money” for the city at the top and those who cause the city to “spend money” at the bottom. At the top of his slide were businesses. In the middle were residents with no children and retirees. And at the very bottom – in the tier of city dwellers who place the biggest financial burden on government – were “criminals and residents with children in public school.”

When told that some might take offense at equating families with children needing free public schools to criminals, Roddy countered that the project would “target tenants who are young professionals without children. Attracting that demographic to the city is crucial, he says, and after the tax abatement ends, the revenue windfall for the city will be significant.

As Mr. Bryant notes, Mr. Roddy is not the only local politician in a city or town with a diminished tax base who views economic development as the way out of the woods and simultaneously views children as a drain on their budgets. But Mr. Roddy and his counterparts across the country should face an economic reality: the significant windfall that they expect to occur never happens! After decades of tax cuts for businesses, one would hope that politicians would recognize that as soon as a tax abatement expires the business receiving that abatement will leave the area if the abatement is not extended. Walmart, for example, has no stake in a community where they locate their store, and neither does a huge corporation. Businesses do not answer to voters, they answer to shareholders and shareholders in, say, Los Angeles or New York City— or China— do not care about the taxpayers in St. Louis and certainly don’t care about the parents and children in that state. So as tax revenue diminishes in these revenue starved cities and towns, who picks up the bill? Parents! Mr. Bryant highlights some of the worst cases of cost shifting to parents, and it is far worse than I would have guessed:

According to an annual report, known as the Backpack Index, that calculates the average cost of school supplies and school fees, parents will have to pick up more of the tab if they want their children to participate fully in school.

The annual cost to parents is significant at a time when the majority of school childrencome from households in poverty: $662 for elementary school children, $1,001 for middle school children, and $1,489 for high school students.

A detail highlighted by NBC’s report on the Backpack Index notes that the biggest spike in direct costs to parents comes from fees charged for activities like school fieldtrips, art and music programs, and athletics. These fees far exceed costs for items like backpacks, pens, and graphing calculators.

Families with children in elementary schools can expect over $30 on average in school fees. For children in middle school, the average cost of fees climbs to $195 for athletics $75 for field trips, and $42 for other school fees. In high school, the fees spike much higher to $375 for athletic (often called “pay to play fees”), $285 for musical instrumentals, $80 to participate in band, and $60 in other school fees. Also in high school, the fees extend to academic courses including participating in Advanced Placement classes, which more schools emphasize students participate in. The average fee for testing related to these courses is $92 and the costs of materials to prepare for these tests, as well as SAT tests, tops $52.

I highlighted the phrase “if they want their children to participate fully in school” because it is a major contributor to the economic divide that has emerged in the past decades. State and local taxpayers are loathe to see their “hard-earned dollars” underwrite “frills” like field trips, extra-curricular activities, and athletics…. and as Mr. Bryant’s analysis intimates the list of “frills” can go on and on. School districts in affluent communities can cut these “frills” and the parents in those communities who invariably have the economic wherewithal to do so and who “want their children to participate fully in school” will willingly chip in to cover the costs of these frills.  Parents in communities like St. Louis, where 68% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, though, will not be able to pay the fees required to have their children participate fully in school. Sadly, many politicians and voters will blame those same parents for their unwillingness to help their children succeed.

Mr. Bryant concludes his article with a description of the NC legislature’ recent budget, which “…set aside millions for a massive expansion of a private school voucher program” while continuing to starve public education of the funding it requires to allow children to participate fully in school. When 27 states spend less on education than they did in 2008 it’s not hard to understand why our schools “are failing”… but its very hard to believe that we are “throwing money” at the problem!


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