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The Back-to-School Expense That's Putting Some Families in Debt

Photograph by Twenty20

It’s that time of year again, when rants about school supplies are swiftly followed by posts defending teachers and those supply lists they hand out. But one Illinois mom is worried about a back-to-school expense no one else seems to be talking about—even though it’s an expense that threatened to ruin her family’s credit.

Public school registration fees have started to pop up as a way for districts to fill in underfunded budget gaps. In the Huntley Community School District, where Amy Smith’s* children attend, those fees can run up to $240 per child.

“Every year, we are charged $465 in fees for our three kids.” Smith told Mom.me. “If I don’t pay by the first day of school, that jumps to $615. And when my kids start high school, the fees will be even higher.”

In the past, the ACLU has claimed these fees were illegal, but schools have argued there is simply no other way to ease the ever-increasing financial burden of public education. And while not all schools charge these fees, those that do vary greatly in how much they charge and what the consequences are for not paying.

“The fees add up," Smith explains. “Especially when you haven’t been able to pay last year’s fees yet.”

Smith and her family live on a single income, with a budget they have to adhere to pretty strictly. When her husband experienced a job change that included a more expensive insurance plan, their finances took a hit. And paying these registration fees became impossible.

“It was either food, insurance, the mortgage or these fees. We couldn’t pay on time. So, of course, we were then charged the additional fees, which we really couldn’t pay. After two years, the school sent us to collections.”

The family followed the process for requesting a waiver, but they were denied every year.

I don’t feel like sending my kids to public school should harm my credit score.

“I recently tried to ask the district what these fees pay for. They told me they couldn’t give me an answer beyond stating the money goes to the district’s overall budget. The registration office seems understanding, but they don’t have any power over the rules. I have not yet found a solution for families who just can’t pay these fees.”

The family worked with collections and eventually paid their debt off with a payment plan. But they’ll still have to come up with the money for future fees. And that impending bill creates a hardship every year.

“I have always sent my kids with all the supplies the school asks us to get for them, including specific headphones and gym shoes they are supposed to leave at school. And we paid the fees fine for years, until we hit a rough patch and just couldn’t," shares Smith.

"I don’t feel like sending my kids to public school should harm my credit score. Aren’t all kids entitled to that education? Sending that debt to collections just puts even more hardship on families who are already struggling. We pay our taxes and, although I am truly grateful we live in a wonderful district, I had no idea to expect these fees prior to moving here. I just never thought sending my kids to public school could cost so much.”

Smith wanted to keep her name private because she was embarrassed about the struggle her family has faced. But she also wanted others to know they aren’t alone if they’re struggling to pay these same fees. “I think if schools are going to charge fees like this, it should at least be based on income. They shouldn’t just assume that every family sending a child to school can afford a few hundred extra dollars in fees to do so.”

Smith surely isn’t alone in her frustration. And some districts are taking the collection of these fees a step further, by actually withholding transcripts and diplomas when a family fails to pay for their enrolled student.

The schools are still required to provide an education, but in those districts that do charge fees, there are definitely consequences for not paying. Which means public education isn’t necessarily free.

It’s a lesson the Smith family had to learn the hard way.

*Name changed to protect privacy

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