Chuck Sweeny: Winters should target big scams, not poor people

Chuck Sweeny

It’s getting downright expensive these days to send a child to the “free” public school. Here, from the Rockford School District Web site, are this year’s per-student high school fees:

Consumable/lab fee, $95; refundable textbook deposit, $25; athletic activity participation fee, $100; band/orchestra fee, $25; Art/CAPA art fee, $25; choral/drama/CAPA drama fee, $25; CAPA graphic design fee, $25; foreign language fee, $12; vocational fee, $5 to $12; vocational Capstone fee, $15 to $60; driver’s education fee, $250; musical instrument rental fee, $30; summer school tuition, $170; AP exam fee, $82 per test. Parents can buy a 20-day lunch pass for their secondary school child for $62. Don’t forget the list of school supplies you have to buy.

There are other fees not on the list. Some sports require special shoes that will set you back $80 or so, and field trip expenses and fees that show up out of nowhere when your child comes home from school.

Some parents can afford the fees, but many can’t, especially in Rockford, where most public school children come from poor families. Most of these parents want their children to succeed, but they have a tough time coming up with the extra money to buy the same educational services that better-off people can afford.

Some are able to get the fees waived. The Register Star reported Sunday that according to the State Board of Education, a family of four can make up to $38,203 annually and qualify for reduced-cost student meals, and up to $26,845 annually for free meals. Fee waivers are tied to eligibility for free or discounted meals.

Now, in a bill that gives new credibility to every “Scrooge” stereotype you’ve heard about Republicans, state Rep. Dave Winters, R-Shirland, proposes a bill to crack down on poor folks who might not be poor enough. Winters is concerned that some poor parents might be lying about how much money they make so that their children’s school will waive extracurricular activity and lunch fees.

This “fee fudgers” bill is a Winters priority for the spring session of the General Assembly. His bill would let school districts check parental income more than once a year. I wonder what would happen if, during the course of a school year, a parent’s income went up just enough to throw the family out of eligibility. You’re off the team, kid.

I’m sure a few parents really do scam the system. But in Illinois, the scammers start at the top of the food chain, not the bottom. Can you say George Ryan? Contractors have to line the pockets of politicians just to do business with state government.

Winters is a good legislator, but in this case he has his priorities wrong. Instead of going after poor people, I’d rather see Winters write legislation to clean up Illinois’ notorious pay-to-play political system, which costs taxpayers untold millions, probably billions, of dollars in sweetheart deals.

The pay-to-players are not poor, and many have become rich by feeding off taxpayers. They are the ones doing great damage to Illinois. Let’s do the heavy lifting and clean up graft and corruption at the top. Save the poor folks for last.

Chuck Sweeny can be reached at (815) 987-1372 or