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Is Public Education Really Free?

Fulton County students incur fees as school year begins.

One of the principle concepts of a public education is that every child is afforded the opportunity to receive a no-cost education in the school district where their guardian resides. However, the reality of a public education is that opportunities to learn are provided, but the tools that go along with that learning may come at a price.

For the 2011-12 school year, the Fulton County School System has a projected operating budget of $819.5 million, with nearly $600 million of that appropriated to instruction and pupil services. Over 65 percent of the budget comes from local revenue like property taxes and the remainder from state revenue (34.5 percent) and federal contributions (.09 percent).

However, even a budget that size isn’t enough to cover every expense that a school incurs. In addition to personal school supplies, Fulton County students are asked to contribute to communal classroom materials like tissues, copy paper and storage bags. And to offset expenses and provide for field trips or other activities, some schools levy fees on non-essentials like lockers and parking passes.

The fees vary from school to school.

“There is not a system guideline [for fees],” said Susan Hale, spokesperson for Fulton County Schools.

She added that the administration at the local school examines the needs of the student population and take into consideration what parents at that school can afford to pay before determining fees.

Cathy Hillegas, a spokesperson for , said that at Roswell High School, “students are required to pay nothing. This is a public education.”

But if a Roswell High student chooses, they can rent a locker for $15 rather than carry a book bag to class. Parking passes, gym clothes and gym lockers are other extras offered to Roswell High students.

Parking fees and locker fees appear to be the most common extras offered at local high schools. A parking permit at Alpharetta High School will set a student back $50; though driving to school is entirely optional as every Fulton County School offers bus service to students.

“[Students] can still get a good education taking the bus,” Hale said.

Johns Creek High School students can choose to pay $15 for a locker, $10 per semester for a gym locker and up to $30 for a gym uniform.

Hale added that though the optional fees are just that, optional, in special circumstances school personnel may work with families to reduce fees they can’t otherwise afford.

Parents at every Fulton County school can also choose to establish a Meal Pay Plus plan for their student, which is essentially a pre-paid lunch debit card. Meal Pay Plus plans are created online and tied to either a debit or credit card, eliminating the need for students to remember daily lunch money. Available at every school in the district, the plan is only used for cafeteria purchases. There is not an extra fee associated with the Meal Pay Plus plan. 

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