By Marla Jo Fisher, The Orange County Register
On his way out the door this morning, Cheetah Boy handed me a grenade.
It wasn’t actually full of gunpowder, but still my head almost exploded when I read it.
A field trip permission slip that said at the top, “REMEMBER $20 DUE BY FRIDAY,” highlighted in pink marker so you couldn’t miss it.
“Here, mom, sign this and I need $20 for the teacher,” he said, looking pointedly toward my wallet.
Are you kidding me?
The school wants me to shell out 20 bucks for my kid to walk around some museum texting, snickering with his friends and taking pictures of cute girls from behind?
He can do that around our neighborhood for free.
My son, 14, has frequently expressed the opinion that he would rather pick up fresh dog poop than go to a museum, and I’ve dragged him to many.
The mere mention of the word “museum” can send him into a twitching, grimacing seizure that reminds me of watching the Wolfman transform during a full moon.
Now, all of a sudden, he’s begging me to go, undoubtedly because he wants to sit in the back of the bus and throw spitballs out the window at passing cars.
I could, if necessary, come up with $20.
But I couldn’t help thinking about the 14 percent unemployment around here, and the formerly middle-class folks I drive past every Saturday morning, standing in long lines to get groceries at a local church.
There was nothing on this permission slip about what would happen if you didn’t pony up $20. Does your kid have to stay back at school and help the janitor empty trash cans instead? How embarrassing would that be?
I’ve never been one of those parents who gripes about their kids’ school. I mostly appreciate the hard work and devotion teachers put into their jobs.
But this time, I e-mailed the teacher involved and told her that, while I appreciated her intentions, this fee was way out of line and I was thinking about complaining to the school board. She called me back right away and explained that they had to pay the museum 10 bucks per kid, and then they had to pay for the bus.
I told her I thought $20 was far too much, and asked her what would happen to the kids who didn’t shell out.
“We would never turn a child away because he didn’t pay,” she said, adding indignantly that no parent had ever asked such questions before in her 30 years of teaching. “Some parents have contacted me privately to tell me that they can’t pay, and I told them we’d work it out.”
I explained to her that many people don’t want to be forced to discuss their financial situation with outsiders, nor do they want to ask for “charity.”
I pointed out that the state was recently sued over fees charged by a whole bunch of Southern California school districts, including in Orange County, including for textbooks, lab fees and so forth.
“Would you be happy if we made it clear that this $20 is a requested donation?” the teacher asked me.
Yes, thank you. That would make me very happy indeed.
And it would also make a lot of other parents happy, including some who are panicking right now because they don’t have $285 to send their kid to school science camp.
Here’s a clue the school won’t tell you: You don’t have to pay.
California state law allows school districts to charge fees for science camp and the like, but only if no student is prevented from going if the parents don’t pay. You can charge fees for transportation for field trips, for example, but state law is also very clear that schools cannot charge for textbooks or other required materials in school.
An ACLU lawyer involved in the case told me that all you have to do to make many costs legal is to make it clear to parents they’re being asked for a donation, not a fee.
If you’re in California, you can look on the San Diego Unified School District’s web home page to find a legal analysis of what parents can and can’t be required to pay.
I don’t know about this issue on a national level, but I would imagine there would be similar rules in place.
We all know that public schools are being hammered left and right financially, and I have no desire to beat them up.
But there’s still insensitivity out there among some educators, especially in well-off areas, about how the recession is hitting their students’ families.
I never forgot hearing a university professor who cleaned toilets to pay for her private high school education talk about how humiliated she was at her public school, where they made the free-lunch kids stand in a separate line from the rest of the kids, apparently because it wasn’t bad enough to be a teenager and poor, but you had to be publicly shamed as well.
I hear from a lot of parents distraught because they don’t know how they’re going to pay for what seems like an endless deluge of fees for everything from varsity football to cheerleading uniforms to online textbooks.
This makes me especially appreciate my kids’ music teacher, who is organizing a candy drive for kids who want to raise the money to take a band trip to Disneyland, instead of just dunning the parents for $80. Thanks! I know it’s extra work for you, but Curly Girl will be by next week to pick up her candy.
Meanwhile, I haven’t decided if I’m sending in my 20 bucks for this field trip. But I know that Cheetah Boy will still get an education, whether or not he tromps around a museum giggling, talking to his friends and ignoring the teacher.
Marla Jo Fisher was a workaholic before she adopted two foster kids several years ago. Now she juggles work and single parenting, while being exhorted from everywhere to be thinner, smarter, sexier, healthier, more frugal, a better mom, better dressed and a tidier housekeeper. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://themomblog.freedomblogging.com/category/frumpy-middleaged-mom-marla-jo-fisher/.