By Saman Shad
The start of the year is an expensive time for most parents — there are new school shoes to buy, stationery list items to tick off, and uniforms to replace with the next size up.
But when term begins, public school parents have another expensive shock waiting for them: term fees.
In my case, a few days after my two kids started back at their local primary school I received invoices totalling $340 each.
This was just for Term 1. It included paying for excursions and other school programs, which I have no problem doing. But the majority of the costs were listed as “voluntary contributions” to the school.
In my case, the term fees for both my kids adds up to roughly $2,800 a year.
The compulsory, voluntary contribution
I did think about not paying the voluntary contributions. After all, as a family we do a lot for the school — my husband has been part of the P&C for the past few years and until recently was volunteering to do all their web development and email messaging work. This is on top of having a full-time job and three kids.
On occasion, those tasks took a good portion of his spare time but he did it for the betterment of the school.
We felt like we were contributing enough without having to also pay thousands of dollars just to send our kids to school when public education in Australia is meant to be free.
I did end up paying the voluntary contributions because of the experience of a friend who once tried not to pay her contributions. She ended up receiving a number of calls from the school asking her why she wasn’t paying.
They suggested setting up a payment plan for her and she felt like she had to explain her financial situation to them, when really it was none of their business.
Shaming students whose parents haven’t paid
It seems schools are turning to tougher, or even humiliating, tactics to get parents to pay their voluntary contributions.
Recently Bondi Public School landed in hot water when it ran a “popcorn initiative”: students whose parents had paid the voluntary contributions before the requested deadline received a packet of popcorn with their canteen lunch orders. Children whose parents had not yet paid got nothing.
The scheme singled out the students whose parents hadn’t paid their contributions and unsurprisingly left a few children in tears.
While the Department of Education insists such contributions are voluntary, in practice this isn’t the case.
In 2017 parents in NSW paid a total of $75.4 million in public school contributions. Many did so without realising that such contributions were voluntary, while others such as myself, knew the repercussions of not paying these fees and did it to avoid the hassle.
Ultimately however it shouldn’t be up to the parents to fund costs that should be met by the government.
What Bondi Public School did was wrong, but I don’t entirely blame the school. The system it must cope with is unjust.
Budget plan B: parents
Underfunded public schools are increasingly turning to parents to fund programs that allow for the day-to-day running of the school.
This is on top of the fact that many public schools are in disrepair — buildings are crumbling, there aren’t enough facilities to cope with the number of students, and school equipment including play areas are past their use-by date.
How are public schools meant to give students a sound education while also dealing with issues like this?
It is now being left to parents to foot the bill — adding a financial pressure that some families can ill afford.
We are fortunate to live in a country where free universal education is supposed to be available to all of those who require it, especially those who couldn’t dream of the exorbitant fees that many private schools charge.
But with each year the funding gap is increasing, and our schools are urging parents to pay more to fill that gap.
Many Australian public schools can no longer claim to be free.
There are no easy solutions. But with State and Federal elections just around the corner maybe this is the time to put proper education funding reforms firmly on the agenda before we start to see those families that are most in need feeling ostracised by the system itself.
Saman Shad is a freelance writer.