Editorial: District 59's tough call to eliminate school fees
An Elk Grove Village-based school board did the unexpected this week when it eliminated material and instructional fees for the 2016-17 school year.
To be clear, elementary District 59 is not among Illinois school districts that impose excessive fees -- $35 a year for half-day kindergarten, $55 for full-day kindergarten through fifth grade, and $65 for 6th through 8th grade puts them in the middle of the pack.
Subtract low-income families eligible for fee waivers, and altogether District 59 will leave about $235,000 on the table next year.
Proponents say the decision is about making a free public education truly free.
But it is also an obvious act of generosity. Sixty-three percent of District 59's student body falls below the poverty line. For those families, and more so the families who come perilously close to the poverty line but don't cross it, a savings of $55 per child is not insignificant.
Is this the beginning of the end for school fees, a major irritant for parents who are frequently charged hundreds of dollars every fall at registration for their children's "free" public education?
Hardly. Nor do we advocate fees be entirely wiped away. We've said it before -- there's sense in making users pay for select costs instead of charging all taxpayers for everything. And supplies aren't getting cheaper -- just look at the laptops purchased for students each year.
But the District 59 action reminds us that it is easy to let fees get out of hand at a time when the number of poor families in the suburbs is rising.
As we learned last summer in our Generations at Risk series, in 2014 more than half of Illinois public school kids were considered low-income, up from 39 percent a decade before. In Elgin Area Unit District U-46, the number of low-income students nearly doubled in 10 years; in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 (Naperville, Aurora) 18 percent of its students are low-income, ranking it 20th in Illinois. A decade ago, it didn't crack the top 100.
"We as a community have collectively promised our children they will receive an education that is of sound quality, enriching in its experience, and ... public and free," said District 59 board member Sunil Bhave. "Instructional materials are essential to providing a high-quality education so to assess a fee in this manner (tells) the community that our district will not abide by that promise."
The decision to do away with fees was supported by the slimmest of margins, 4-3. The board could easily look at the bottom line next year and reinstate them.
Either way, District 59 has started a conversation that other suburban school districts should take up. How much is too much in fees? Only individual school boards, whose members know their communities, can decide for themselves.