I remember the first time a neighbor let her daughter ride the school bus.
It was out of character for this protective mom, but gas was creeping up to $3 a gallon. So she parked by the bus stop and watched her child depart on a 10-mile journey to the school she attended under the choice plan.
This year it's a whole new game, with everyone obsessed about the cost of things. The school district doesn't want buses to stop at every corner burning fuel when it wouldn't hurt kids to walk a few blocks.
Parents don't want to foot the bill either, and it's not just about bus rides. We used to laugh at those supply lists. Why should we buy copy paper and hand soap and books for music class?
This year it's not funny. When I'm paying $1 a tomato, I'm counting on school lunch to be a bargain. A few years ago it really was. Not so much anymore.
You will hear a collective expletive when the note comes home about "incentive trips" to Busch Gardens and Disney World and — you got it — the school does not pick up the tab. Where's my incentive, I want to know. Nor does the district pay for child care when it declares a "take your kid to the fair day.'' You can forget about free corn dogs, too.
I'm not shedding tears for the for-profit day care centers that want the schools to bus kids to their door. Let 'em send a van, right? Only there's usually a long waiting list for the at-school day care. I cannot imagine what life will be like for working parents with limited after-school options. Or for parents who are told, "Sorry, if your child wants to ride the bus to school, he's got to wait along a four-lane road. Or you can drive him. Yeah, we know you work. We work, too.''
Years ago, when my kids were little, I considered sending them to private school. I did the research and learned that, on average, you get better-qualified teachers in the public schools. You've got to weigh that against the private schools' right to limit enrollment, the logic being that there are far fewer disruptive students in the mix.
Still, private school tuition was out of reach and it seemed that in a public school, every effort would be made to keep things affordable. Nobody would invite my middle schooler on a $1,000 trip to Washington, D.C. The PTA wouldn't send home high-priced gift catalogs, promising my kids prizes if they got us to buy. I say "us" because they're not supposed to sell door to door, and no one I know can afford $10 giftwrap any more than I can.
So you swallow your pride and get your kids used to hearing, "It's too much money.'' Better they should learn the value of a dollar, even if they feel like riffraff at the fancy school you worked so hard to get them into.
There is a presumption that a family that is working class, newly immigrated, single-mother-dependent, minimum-wage-earning, unusually large, battling high medical bills, in the midst of divorce or financially stressed for any other reason should be able to give their children the full experience of a public school education, courtesy of taxpayers. Kind of like the assumption that Grandma should get all her medicine regardless of cost.
With the exception of the theme park and Washington, D.C., excursions (I'll get over those trips to Sam Ash for music books, even though it still kind of bothers me), my children's schools have met that expectation.
But August 2008 is different from August 2007. It feels different. The money thing is a lot more talked about. Those teachers who used to spend their own money on supplies and just complain about it a little? If I'm them, I'm complaining a lot.
I hope PTAs get creative this year. I hope they are sensitive to the fact that parents are struggling. Our kids have insatiable demands for high-tech gadgets, and that's a subject for another day. It's up to parents to hold the line on spending, despite their children's demands.
I wish the schools luck as they hold the line on demanding things from us.