As many parents know, free public education is not entirely free. Even with the basic costs covered by tax revenue, many small holes are left in school budgets. Especially (but not only) at the start of the school year, parents find themselves shopping and donating to keep classrooms running. In New Zealand, Tina Law of Stuff.co.nz finds that parents do best if they plan ahead, save and stock up.
As kids get older, their classes start going on special trips and camps, and schools must charge for these. But starting with kindergarten, parents are dunned for art supplies. Principals admit that parents find it a strain, and that some parents are not able to pay. However, the materials that parents donate make the classroom a better place for their children, so the principals feel that the schools are justified in making the request.
New Zealand Principals' Federation president Phil Harding said schools often asked parents to pay for extras during the school year.
He said the law was confusing, but politicians had no appetite to change it. "At the end of the day, teachers are not sitting there trying to rip people off and getting parents to buy whiteboard markers to look at. They are doing this in good faith because they think they need them."
New Zealand schools ask parents to give a general cash donation for activities and supplies, but like schools in many developed countries, they also send home lists. Art supplies and other stationery items top the list, but it may include other paper goods like facial tissue. Additionally, classrooms schedule special events and these come with outside charges. Sometimes it's swimming lessons or musical concerts, and other times it's overnight camps that the whole class goes on. The law states that education must be free, but schools say that the line between education and special event is not clearly drawn.
Going on camps was technically part of the curriculum and the Government said the curriculum was free, but without parents' help to pay for camps they would not happen, Harding said.
"We tread a fine line between âthe curriculum is free' and âplease make a contribution'."
So parents find a way to pay, because an enriched classroom is more fun for their kids. When a family has more than one child in school, the supplies, camps and lessons can add up to hundreds of dollars. Some parents plan ahead and shop sales to stock up on things they expect the schools to ask for. One mother interviewed by Law said that looking for wholesale goods helps a lot:
To cut down on back-to-school costs, Sayers buys stationery including whiteboard markers and gluesticks by the box load when they are on special throughout the year.
At the beginning of this school year she only had to pay $20 for the girls' stationery – it would have been $100 – because she had stocked up throughout the year, she said.
Schools try to give parents long advance notice on really costly things like camps, so that families can save or pay in installments. Quietly, they also admit that the school will pick up the cost for a child whose family really cannot pay. But if the school had to pay for children more than the bare minimum, the event would have to be cancelled. Parents whose children look forward to camps make an effort to keep them on the schedule.
Schools are also able to get discounts on some things like group swimming lessons. New Zealand mom Sacha Sayers agreed that as expensive as it is to send in the money for school-based lessons, it would cost more to find them privately.