We recently spoke with a parent who was ecstatic that her daughter was accepted at STEM Magnet Academy on Chicago’s Near West Side this year.

Not only is STEM considered a quality school, it’s a public school – meaning there’s no tuition, unlike the private institution the child last attended.

The parent, who asked that we not use her name, was unemployed and looked forward to the financial break, but was surprised to find that STEM – like an increasing number of schools throughout the Chicago area – charges fees to families, including a $235 “student fee.”

Atop the four supply lists she had to buy for, the costs for mandatory uniforms and after-school care through Chicago Public Schools, the parent said the charges added up quickly.

“I was floored,” she said.

We realize public schools were never technically “free” – property taxes have long funded them. But there was a time not long ago where kids could show up on Day One of class with a pen and pencil and not much more.

No longer in many school systems. The financial crisis hitting school districts across the state is driving the proliferation of fees, according to experts we interviewed. The fees are one more way for districts to shore up school budgets in a time of reduced government funding, soaring staff costs and ever-mounting pressures to keep property taxes under control.

“The State of Illinois has reduced funding by almost $1 billion, and that has put a lot of stress on schools,” says Michael Jacoby, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Business Officials. “The school boards are constantly asking themselves, ‘How do we cover costs without eliminating activities?’”

We delved into this topic a bit and found:

  • Fees can vary widely. Some school systems and individual schools have no fees, while others charge big, including Chicago Public Schools’ selective Whitney Young Magnet High School, where each student is supposed to cough up $500 in fees.
  • Under the law, impoverished families can’t be forced to pay such fees, so schools with a large number of poor kids often don’t bother instituting them. However, schools with higher-income students can bring in a nice sum, with Chicago’s Edison Park, Thorp and Blaine schools each collecting between $15,000 and $40,000 last year.
  • Many city schools implemented or increased fees this past school year when the CPS administration cut school budgets by $80 million. Lincoln Elementary School in Lincoln Park, one of Chicago’s wealthier areas, just created a $50 per-student fee that is supposed to go toward books and technology.
  • Some districts, including Wilmette School District 39, won’t rule out sending parents to a collections agency if they don’t pay up, although District 39 emphasizes “this doesn’t happen regularly” and that “we work with families” whenever possible.

Marguerite Roza, an education researcher and associate professor at Georgetown University, says the collection of fees is “unfair and inequitable” because they disproportionately benefit wealthier schools.

Roza is especially critical of fees that students have to pay to take particular classes or to participate in activities.

But schools officials said they’re hamstrung – districts can only raise property taxes (a major source of school funding) so much, and with fewer state subsidies they have to do something to generate more cash.

STEM Principal Maria McManus defended her school’s $235 fee. She says $135 of that goes toward field trips, which students take every four to six weeks.

McManus says that more 90 percent of the parents pay, even though half of her students are low-income and not required to pay.

“In order for us to do what we do for the kids, it costs,” she says.

This story was written and reported by Sarah Karp, a Better Government Association contributor and the deputy editor of the education publication Catalyst-Chicago. She can be reached at (312) 673-3882 or karp@catalyst-chicago.org.