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Why isn’t free public education free?

by Sandra Pfau Englund on Jul 25, 2016

Have you heard the Staples advertisement set to the holiday tune of The Most Wonderful Time of the Year with parents leaping for joy that the kids are going back to school? I’m guessing fewer parents are leaping for joy and more are feeling a holiday-like pinch with the cost of school fees for sports, music, field trips, labs, etc. rivaling or exceeding with most parents spend per child at the holidays. In many high schools, parents pay hundreds of dollars a year so their children can play sports or march in the high school band.

Wasn’t there a time when public education in the U.S. was actually free? Isn’t it supposed to be?

Providing free public education is intended to create a well-informed populace that helps grow the country’s economy. All the state constitutions provide for free public education, however the interpretation of what must be provided without charge, and for what activities the schools may charge a fee, varies widely.

Generally, schools may not charge tuition for graded courses or other activities that impact a grade, fees for a cap & gown required to walk in graduation, and necessary school supplies like paper, pens, pencils, art supplies for a graded art class, composition books and bluebooks for exams. Public schools generally may charge for non-graded optional activities such as band trips and field trips, optional exams such as AP exams that are not required or included as part of the course grade, parking fees and food (except for meals provided as part of reduced-meal programs).

The problem is, schools often seem to set their own rules and unless parents complain, and may be charging fees that they shouldn’t. Look for more lawsuits this year like the ones being brought by the ACLU that question fees being charged by schools and are trying to bring more “free” back into public education.

The only organization of its kind in the US, Parent Booster USA is about helping school support organizations (parent teacher organizations, high school booster clubs and other school fundraising groups) handle the state and federal government paperwork required of fundraising groups.

Founded in 2004 by an attorney skilled in nonprofit and tax law, Parent Booster USA has more than 5,000 member organizations in 50 states and DC with a 95% annual renewal rate. We provide peace of mind for parent volunteers, school administrators and school district leadership.

Sandra Pfau Englund

Founder of Parent Booster USA

Sandra Pfau Englund was a working mom in 2004 when she volunteered for her son’s elementary school PTO. The nonprofit and tax law attorney quickly became mired in trying to organize the group’s finances, tax-exempt status and fundraising compliance. If it was this complicated and time consuming for someone with her professional knowledge, she wondered how other parents and booster groups managed. From that experience, Parent Booster USA was born.

Sandra is a sought-after subject matter expert and has been quoted by NBC’s TODAY show and in Forbes and The Wall Street Journal, among others. She is published and speaks throughout the country on issues related to nonprofit legal liability, financial controls and audits in a post-Sarbanes-Oxley world, board development and fundraising.

Learn more at


With PBUSA membership, we file all the IRS and state paperwork. We keep your booster club up and running year after year.