Parents' outrage over tricky public school fees
RAISING children is expensive. I'm a single mum with three school-age children and I don't know where all my money goes, but I suspect a large proportion of it ends up at uniform shops replacing lost hats and the Apple store replacing cracked screens.
When my kids graduated from preschool and moved on to the public school system, I remember dancing a jig about how rich I was going to be now that I didn't have daycare fees to pay.
Now I look back fondly at that poor, naive woman, and I smile a sad smile.
I HAVEN'T SAVED A SINGLE CENT
Instead, I've been ponying up for stationery, public transport, text books, mandatory iPads, extra-curricular activities and uniforms - including the all-important blazer. We live in Queensland, where a blazer is a nice-to-have item for probably three weeks in the year. But, like everything else, it's compulsory.
Lucky for me, though, when my school asks for extra contributions to further enhance my children's educational experience, they make it abundantly clear that contributions are not compulsory, but rather, enormously appreciated.
Cool, I elect to ensure I can make rent instead.
'VOLUNTARY' SLEIGHT OF HAND
But something is rotten in the state of NSW, with some urban schools removing the word "voluntary" from their communications, instead issuing an invoice to all parents.
Call me crazy, but if I saw that, I would assume I had to pay it. And I grew up in this country, am fluent in English, and have a pretty decent understanding of how the public school system works.
But I'm also busy - and am often too busy helping to find someone's other shoe or working out whose swimming day it is to look critically at every bill I receive to decipher whether it's an actual bill or just a suggestion.
Imagine if I was new to the language, grew up in a different country with a different education system, wasn't a confident reader, or was just feeling overwhelmed by the mere fact that I have children (which is pretty much all of us at least some of the time). How would I work it out then?
AN UNNECESSARY BURDEN
Well, I wouldn't. Research conducted by the NSW Parents and Citizens Association published by Fairfax this morning found that up to 80 per cent of parents don't realise school contributions are voluntary.
In short, the majority of parents are shouldering a burden they needn't shoulder - and in some cases, the financial cost is extreme, with contribution requests exceeding $2500 at some NSW state schools.
And where are these exceedingly well-funded schools? Yep, in affluent areas of Sydney where some schools are earning close to $1.5 million in "voluntary" contributions every year. By contrast, there are nearly 400 schools in less privileged areas that receive no parental contributions at all.
THE 'HAVES' AND THE 'HAVE-NOTS'
What that creates is a chasm between the "haves" and the "have-nots", where children from wealthier areas go to schools that are better funded and better equipped, while schools in less affluent areas languish on the bare minimum provided by the government.
Will children from those wealthy schools be more likely to go on to graduate from university and secure higher-paid employment? You bet your BA they will.
In 2017, schools took $75.4 million in contributions, including voluntary fees and subject contributions. If education really is a right of all Australians, that money should have come from the government and it should have been spread equally across all schools.
It's up to the state to ensure our schools are adequately funded. And if they're selling lower taxes as part of their next election campaign, it's up to us to look past their cheap pointscoring to ask: at what cost?
Because if they don't have enough cash in the coffers to offer a decent education to all, no matter their postcode, something is seriously wrong.