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School fees: Is Utah really family friendly?

By Nettie Francis

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 27 2014 11:35 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, Aug. 27 2014 11:35 a.m. MDT

I recognize the family values that so many Utahns uphold, and I’m grateful for the good people who provide education here. However, please don’t laud yourself as “family friendly” without examining how things are working elsewhere.

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My family moved to Utah from Wyoming in 2012. While we certainly enjoy living in the Beehive State (and it is nice not to be the only 12-passenger van parked at the mall), I beg to differ that Utah is as conservative as its lifetime residents purport. Although “family values” is a catch-phrase here, the school fee burdens placed upon families are astounding.

I’ll never forget the day I took my two junior high students to register at their new Utah school. “That will be $250,” the receptionist said without batting an eye. I gulped. “Isn’t this a public school?” “Yep,” she answered briskly, “but those are mandatory school fees.” I couldn’t help myself. “Does every child get a laptop?” I asked, remembering our Wyoming education. “We have a few computers in the school,” she answered. I asked to delay paying the money, and we went home to figure out our family budget.

Looking through the state school fee informational sheet, I was relieved to discover that a “work-off school fees” option was available. I quickly called the principal. “I’ve never heard of that,” he said. I contacted two other principals to ask about the option of working off school fees. “No, our school doesn’t offer that,” was their immediate reply. “Please look into the fee waiver form instead,” they suggested. (Really? This conservative state encourages taking a government handout over old-fashioned work?) Although I discovered that our family did indeed qualify for fee waivers (Who doesn’t?), the independent inside of me didn’t allow such a move.

After a few weeks of balancing finances, we finally paid over $400 in mandatory fees for our three junior high and high school students to attend school. After the first day of class, our children returned home, appalled. “The classes are huge!” they said. “We have to print out all of our own papers or our grade gets docked!” “We only have access to school computers once a week!” “Everything extra-curricular costs money!” To say we were shocked is an understatement. I did some research (Check out datacenter.kidscount.org.) and discovered that in 2011, Utah (the very bottom of the list) spent almost $7,000 per student, while Wyoming (the very top of the list) spent over $19,000. And the numbers have only fluctuated slightly in the following years. (It certainly didn’t help my children’s morale when they recently heard from Wyoming friends that high school freshmen had each received an iPad, while the sophomores through seniors were each given a new laptop.)

I bravely tried to broach the subject of school with several of my Utah education friends. “Well, we don’t have a lottery like Wyoming does,” one answered curtly. (Although Wyoming recently passed a lottery, it only goes into effect this month, so that doesn’t explain their great educational funding in the past.) “Well, we still have one of the best education systems in the country,” another Utahn bragged. (Huge classes, no teacher aides, little technology, and often lower academic standards are the elements that were blatantly obvious to me and my children.) “What about all those gas and oil funds that Wyoming receives?” (Yes, the federal mineral royalties in Wyoming do in fact fund much of the education in the Cowboy State. However, doesn’t Utah also boast extensive mineral wealth and a diversified economy with deep pockets?) “Well, with such a high population, the state can’t provide as much for students,” is another common argument to justify Utah’s lack of funding. (Doesn’t a higher population naturally generate more taxes?)

Actually, although big families are one of Utah’s trademarks, the number of students per total population is surprisingly similar between the two states, with Wyoming students making up 17 percent of the population and Utah students 22 percent. And this percentage cannot explain why Utah spends just over 40 percent of its state budget on education, as opposed to Wyoming’s 81 percent. To add another wrench, consider that Wyoming residents don’t pay state income taxes.

All number-crunching aside, the most telling fact may be from the Wyoming Constitution, which mandates that education at the University of Wyoming be “as free as possible.” This feeling of state responsibility for education (with little federal intervention) is a prevalent trademark of the Cowboy State.

Before you throw tomatoes at me, remember, I do enjoy living in this gorgeous state. I recognize the family values that so many Utahns uphold, and I’m grateful for the good people — including hard-working teachers and administrators — who provide education here.

However, please don’t laud yourself as “family friendly,” Utah, without exploring neighboring states and examining how things are working elsewhere. Just a few miles away, public education is really funded through state taxes and income, without additional fee burdens placed upon families. Class sizes are small, teachers are paid well, computers and iPads are made available (or given) to every student, and a child can participate in cross-country without breaking the family bank. School fees? Just sayin ….

Nettie Francis is a stay-at-home mother of nine children living in Kaysville, Utah. She has a degree in elementary education and is currently a columnist for the Casper Wyoming Journal.

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