Should parents be charged a fee for technology services that traditionally have been viewed as a school district’s responsibility to provide? That’s the question an increasing number of administrators are asking themselves.

Unregulated by most states and often not subject to stakeholder approval, the miscellaneous fees that school districts charge parents have become a common tool for administrators to raise money without raising taxes.

Usually these fees are applied to optional activities, such as participation in sports or other extracurricular activities. But a growing number of districts are applying them to basic technology services, too.

The Jefferson County, Colo., Public Schools charge a technology fee of $5 per year for elementary students and $10 per year for secondary students, according to district spokeswoman Tanya Spasev. The fees are applied to computer support and are mandatory for all students in the district.

“For the most part, our parents are very supportive of us. They recognize that these fees help to supplement the options we can provide to our students,” Spasev said.

The $10 fee might not seem like much, but computer support isn’t the only thing Jefferson County schools charge parents for. The district’s policy allows individual schools to collect fees for workbooks and other supplementary materials, said Deputy Superintendent Cindy Stevenson.

When taken together, such fees add up quickly.

“I think they are making a killing,” Vivien Wood, whose daughter is a senior at Bear Creek High School, told the Associated Press. Her daughter’s fees totaled $361.50 this year, including books for advanced-placement classes.

“God knows we would love not to charge” for technology and other services, but the district must stay within a budget, Stevenson said. “I think it comes down to making choices about where the taxpayers’ money goes.”

Charging parents for computer support and other technology services is nothing new in the Naperville Community Unit School District, outside of Chicago. That district—where the average property owner already pays about $3,000 in school taxes, according to the Chicago Tribune—has charged parents an annual per-student technology fee for the past nine years.

According to Skip Paulson, director of technology for Naperville, the per-student technology fee started at $20 eight years ago, but now it is $29 for students in grades one through 12. Kindergarteners are charged $12, because they only attend school for half a day.

Twenty percent of the fee pays for districtwide software purchases, and the other 80 percent goes directly to the school, said Paulson: “That way, schools can make their own decisions about technology, based on their [individual] improvement plans.”

The fees are intended to supplement the district’s technology budget and represent only a small portion of the district’s overall spending on technology, officials contend.

Not all educators think it’s appropriate to charge parents technology fees.

“I believe that access to appropriate technology should be part of the regular educational allocation,” said Nancy Messmer, director of library, media, and technology for the Bellingham (Wash.) School District.

Bellingham schools do not charge families for the use of technology; district officials have equated access to technology with access to textbooks and other required learning materials and tools, Messmer said.

“We work hard to build the expenses into ongoing budgets,” she said. “We wish that assistance with technology purchases and updates were part of our state funding for education. It is so challenging to provide enough access to accomplish our learning goals and to purchase and maintain up-to-date equipment and software.”

“I concur that it is a state’s responsibility to [provide] appropriate [resources], but we understand the cost of technology in schools,” said Heidi Rogers, past president of the International Society for Technology in Education.

There are alternatives to charging parents mandatory technology fees, she explained. Idaho, for instance, has instituted a program that allows people to donate money to a school or nonprofit and receive a tax credit.

But Naperville administrators say there have been few complaints over technology fees charged by the district’s schools.

“I was an elementary principal when the fee was initiated, and I had one parent ask me about this fee,” said Ray Rehberg, Naperville’s director of instructional technology. “So I explained what it went for and that parent said, ‘Twenty dollars is about what it costs to take my family to McDonalds, and that’s worth the investment.'”

“We’ve had questions over time, but when you tell people that 80 percent of the funds are going back to the building where their students are, they are very supportive,” agreed Paulson.

Links:

Jefferson County Public Schools
http://www.jeffco.k12.co.us

Naperville Community Unit School District 203
http://www.ncusd203.org

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org