Oregon’s Phoenix-Talent school district just eliminated student fees for extra-curricular activities. In recent years, as federal, state, and local jurisdictions have cut back funding, “pay-to-play” fees have become the norm in Oregon and across the country. Athletic fees get the most notice, but Phoenix-Talent is explicitly eliminating “fees for activities such as band, choir, drama and Future Farmers of America.” They say it will cost them $35,000 a year, not much in terms of their overall $109 million dollar budget.

From kindergarten through college, public financial support for education has been in steady decline since my own school days—grades 1-12 (1949-1960) in Minnesota and California, and college in California, graduating in 1964.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, California was the model for free public education. When we arrived from Minnesota in 1952, I was astonished that the school provided pencils and paper. I played three sports in high school, was in a school play and served in student government. The thought that these things would cost students never occurred.

At the University of California, Riverside, a 3.3 out of high school got you in. There was no tuition, but $84 per year in “student fees.” That covered the health center and subsidized the cost of student tickets to plays, movies, and sports events. I got paid to work in the library and referee intramural basketball games, worked summers, and got the occasional $5 bill in the mail from mom. Student loans and students’ family incomes weren’t part of the equations.

The 40s and 50s also saw the GI Bill, probably the greatest public investment in education in our country’s history—and, I would argue, the primary tool in the post WW II swelling of the middle class. Most of my junior and senior high school male teachers were WW II veterans who had gone to school on the GI Bill; most were first generation college students. Many in my generation can thank the GI Bill—through parents and teachers—for helping get us where we are today.

The 40s, 50s, and 60s weren’t paradise, especially if you were black or brown—but they saw, through education, the greatest expansion of the middle class in our history, and in fact opened the doors and windows on our cruel racial past.

Fast forward to now—and tuition in California is over $15,000 annually, tuition and everything else at the University of Oregon is $45,000 per year, out-of-state—a mere $26,000 in-state. Public colleges here and everywhere compete for wealthy foreigners who pay full bore as our government support declines.

In higher education today there is a divide based on class and cash.

In The Meritocracy Trap, Yale Law professor Daniel Markovits argues that wealth determines what colleges our children attend. Beginning in the 1960s, grades and SAT scores were seen as equalizers. But now, “on average, children whose parents make more than $200,000 a year score about 250 points higher on the SAT than children whose parents make $40,000 to $60,000.” Thank high performance kindergartens, “good” neighborhoods, and intensive tutoring. Yale is now reflective of a new class based on unfair competition and wealth.

Markovits’ suggestion is that Yale and other elite schools be required to have their student bodies match the financial profiles of the population—or lose their non-profit status as public servants. He argues that this will not only open the higher education doors to a wider swath of America, but save the wealthy from a frantic lifestyle that has them working themselves to death to stay ahead, bending and breaking rules when they have to to make sure their children start out and stay ahead.

“In 1962, when many elite lawyers earned roughly a third of what they do today,” Markowitz says, “the American Bar Association declared: ‘There are … approximately 1,300 fee-earning hours per year available to the normal lawyer.” The figure at a major law firm in 2000 was 2400 billable hours—well over 40 hours/week! The reward: higher income—and the imperative to get more.

I believe him, believe that the race to wealth that started with the “greed is good” 80s has left us a nation more divided, angry, and frustrated with the present and prospects for the future than at any time in my 76 years.

It might seem small, but the move by Phoenix-Talent is a good one, one that can be emulated in small schools and towns across the country. It might lead a movement to make schools less wealth and class conscious (everyone knows who is on scholarship and who gets free lunch), and allow parents to spend more time with their children and less time on the wealth treadmill.

Let’s start with no more pay-to-play, move towards free meals and pencils—and then college tuition.

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