Public Schools Are Starting to Charge “Fees” for “Childcare”

In an alarming trend, financially strapped school districts across the country are introducing “fees” for looking after students. We need to stop the COVID-19–era privatization of public schools.

A student raises her hand during her first day of kindergarten on September 9, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. (John Moore / Getty Images)

Here’s a sign of a collapsing state: across the country, public school districts are charging parents money for “childcare” in school buildings. (Otherwise known as “school.”)

Many schools are closed because of the ongoing pandemic. This has left many working parents needing childcare. During the peak of the pandemic, New York City offered free childcare to children of essential workers, and later, to anyone who needed it. The program was a success — largely safe and widely appreciated by the families that used it. But this business of charging parents for childcare in public buildings when school is supposed to be in session is manifestly unjust and underscores how badly at risk our public institutions are in this intertwined crisis of recession and pandemic. We are going to have to fight hard to restore public trust in them, and to get them back.

Durham, North Carolina announced in August that it would be charging $70 to $140 per week (homeless and foster families will not be charged, no doubt cold comfort to the majority) for its “learning centers,” coincidentally located in school buildings and providing “supervision” to kids during the day. (Otherwise known as “schools” providing “school.”) Fairfax County, Virginia provides “a supportive setting to promote children’s academic, social, emotional and physical development” (e.g., “school”), for fees on a sliding scale, with monthly fees ranging from $80 to $1,472. The Fairfax program, extra-obnoxiously, is called Supporting Return to School (SRS). Other districts that have done this include Howard County, Maryland (a partly federally funded program charging $185 for the school day); Gilbert, Arizona; and others.

The phenomenon has received more attention from the Right than from the Left, because it makes the public sector look incompetent, and as Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation points out, “taxpaying parents are being charged twice.” (She’s right.) It also feeds the conservative narrative that lockdowns — in most cases won by workers’ legitimate demands and concerns over public safety — are excessive and illogical. Of course, these districts’ predatory cost-shifting moves don’t demonstrate anything about the public health wisdom of lockdowns: during a pandemic, as large districts like NYC discovered last spring, a building can be safe for a small number of children and staff, but not for its usual overcrowded school-day-as-usual.

In Durham, the plan was most strenuously resisted by Republican elected officials, who called it illegal and unconstitutional. The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative organization, wrote to the Gilbert, Arizona school district in August, arguing that the policy of charging parents for access to school buildings during the school day violates Arizona Supreme Court rulings that say that school should be “absolutely free.” The right-wing thugs are completely correct on this matter.

The Left should be even more concerned than the Right when public services are privatized in this way. What’s happening is that working people are losing access to much-needed public support. Perhaps even worse, we risk losing the sense of entitlement to, and ownership of, public goods that we all feel when the state provides them for free. When governments charge money for public services — whether schools or garbage collection — they are failing the people. When governments fail the people, they essentially invite right-wing solutions like school vouchers — as you’ll see from the Heritage Foundation hot take. They invite the middle class to ask, reasonably: Why should we pay taxes if we’re going to pay for school anyway?

Free K-12 school is one of the few socialized services in the United States. Of course, teachers and students should not go back until it’s safe, but all defenders of public education need to be on notice that when districts insult the public by charging money for public schooling, they’re building a constituency for the Right. The vultures are circling.