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posted: 8/22/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: Reining in school registration fees

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

You've bought the construction paper and the scissors, the planner and the calculator, the classroom Kleenex and wet wipes.

If you're the parent of a suburban public school student, you've also written a check -- perhaps a substantial one -- for school registration fees.

A standard feature of the suburban back-to-school landscape for decades, the registration fee generates funds for the school district to pay for supplies from lab glassware to workbooks to textbooks to laptops to graduation gowns. In many schools, a la carte fees for things like art supplies, parking permits, driver's ed and extracurriculars come on top of that registration fee.

We're not necessarily opposed to the idea of putting selected school costs on parents rather than on all property taxpayers. And we sympathize with the clash between the rising costs of technology and supplies and declining aid for public schools.

But the wide variation in amounts charged, the lack of uniformity in what's included and a few questionable requirements -- mandatory Google Chromebooks? -- call out for a closer look at how schools arrive at registration fees.

As the Daily Herald's Jake Griffin wrote on Wednesday, fees across the suburban area range from $28 for a first-grader at Marquardt Elementary District 15 in Glen Ellyn to $433 for freshmen and sophomores at Maine Township High School District 207 in Des Plaines and Park Ridge.

That's a big gap, partly stemming from different interpretations of Illinois' vague law that allows charges for "consumables" and materials. There's plenty of room to add some guidelines to that law without being too onerous for schools, perhaps starting with requirements that the charges be itemized for parents and that proceeds -- millions of dollars in some school districts -- be kept in a separate school account.

Along with that, school boards need to open up the process of setting fees in a way that gives parents more input.

Unlike requirements that school tax levy and operating budget proposals be aired at multiple school board meetings or subjected to public hearings, registration fees can be set without alerting parents. Some school districts set fees for years at a time, or establish automatic fee hikes tied to inflation. That might have worked when fees were a few bucks, but not when families with several school-age children are faced with paying as much as $1,000.

Finally, school districts need to be careful stewards of those funds. As Griffin wrote, Cary Elementary District 26 attributed its fees, ranging from $167 to $218, to a new hands-on science program requiring lab materials and to added use of workbooks and journals in other classes. District 207's fees include the cost of new Chromebooks for freshmen and sophomores. It goes without saying that the cost to students and parents need to be a big part of the discussion of such initiatives.

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