The end of free public schools?

Tough economic times mean looking for creative ways to stay in the black. For schools short on options, this often means simply asking parents to pitch in a few coins, a practice widely seen on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, some British parents say these "voluntary" contributions are not voluntary at all--and they're feeling bullied by the schools' heavy-handed tactics. "Our accounts indicate you have not made a contribution," reads one letter from school to parents. "Our records indicate you have not contacted us," reads another. And if there's no room in one's family budget for educational generosity? You'll have to explain yourself to school leaders: "We always invite parents to write us to explain their circumstances and propose an alternative." But why are parents giving in? Because not paying means running the risk that their child will be excluded from school activities--or that a younger sibling won't get into the same secondary school as an older brother or sister. The schools are even demanding money from the pupils themselves. "If you try to evade paying," threatened one letter to a teenage boy, "then your sixth-form privileges will be removed." And they were (he was banned from the school common area), until the hassled lad used his Christmas money to satisfy his "voluntary" obligation. Since no system monitors how money is requested, there's no way to know how much schools are demanding--or receiving or spending. We know budgets are tight, but let's not redefine "optional" to mean "compulsory." Let's hope this trend doesn't cross the pond.

"Serious brass," by Jessica Shepherd, The Guardian, June 16, 2009

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