Q: My son wants to join the high school marching band, but it costs over $1,000 to participate. We can’t afford that. Do I have any recourse?
This question struck a chord with me. I once taught a young man who was being raised by his adult sister and her husband. They were young and had very little money. The student − we’ll call him John − was a magnificent instrumentalist and a valued contributor to the marching band. More relevant to me as someone who cared about him was that the band served as a kind of second family to a young man whose own had been badly damaged.
John could barely afford much of anything. All of his clothes were hand-me-downs. His car was a heap that had been given to him. There was no way he could afford the marching band fees which, even back then, were close to $1,000 a year.
The band gave him an opportunity to make up some of the cost by selling oranges and pies, but this amounted to a fraction of the final payment. He was a resourceful kid, though and he decided that he wasn’t going to drop out. He was just going to keep marching until they gave him the boot.
Thankfully they never did. But what they did do was send him a bill every quarter instead of a report card. By the time he graduated, he had never seen his own grade report and he owed over $5,000.
While John had the moxie and support to stay in the band despite the exorbitant cost, many students don’t. I’ve been told by a number of parents that they won’t let their children join band or some other school program because they simply can’t afford it.
This doesn’t seem right to me. Public schools, like courts, should be places where a pauper has the same rights and opportunities as a Rockefeller. There are already a myriad of ways students show that they’re more well off than others: $1,000 phones and $300 shoes come to mind. But the classes you are able to take shouldn’t be on that list.
Most of us would not take issue with the fees associated with, say, renting your own band instrument or buying your own workout gear for football. But for students to have to bear the brunt of hired assistants, fancy costumes or expensive weightlifting equipment seems out of line with the purpose of public schools.
When I was in band myself, the cost was negligible. As a result, it was filled with students from all walks of life. It allowed a middle class kid like me to be friends with both the richer and the poorer. This is not always the case in today’s schools where the haves are often the only ones who can afford to participate.
Many might say, “There just isn’t enough money for the arts and athletics. They have to make up the costs somehow.”
One might counter-argue that there would be more funds available if everything didn’t have to be state of the art. I realize that no-frills uniforms or a forty year old tuba are sub-optimal, but if they allow one more kid to participate who wouldn’t have been able to, the sacrifice is worth it.
The reality, though, is there is plenty of money for pretty much everything sensible we’d like to do in education. All it would take to release it is for someone to take a scythe to a big percentage of the useless mid-level bureaucracies that ruthlessly absorb and fruitlessly spend so much of the funding. Do that and I bet you could cover the cost for just about every kid who wants to play and has the stick-to-it-iveness to rehearse and practice.
In your case, two options come to mind. The first is to turn it to your child’s advantage. Don’t teach him to sulk or arm him for class warfare. Instead, explain that the harder he works, the more money he can make and the more things he can afford to do, like join band. Even if he’s not old enough for a part-time job, he could still mow lawns or rake leaves. In the last couple of years, I’ve seen students work their hearts out to buy things their parents couldn’t give them like a fishing boat and a set of braces. That’s a tremendous life lesson for kids and because they’ve had to earn these things, they will better appreciate their value as well as the value of work and money.
Secondly, a kind but candid letter to your principal, school board member and even your state congressional representative expressing your concerns would be advisable. Even if it won’t help your own child, you might plant a seed that will help others.
School systems are obligated by their very mission to provide a quality education to all students. This means they should not be in the business of sponsoring clubs and activities that only affluent families can afford. Until that message sinks in, parents are advised to turn the setbacks into setups for their children to learn critical life lessons that many of their classmates will sadly never know.