The whole "big idea" behind having a system of public schools to educate our nation's children is that the public schools are free to attend. We pay taxes, and those taxes pay for schools. The schools are open to all the kids, for free. If you're paying money in order to attend a school, that's called a private school. New system: all schools are private!

Conservative ideologues haven't quite been able to smash America's public school system into an atomized system of religious schools and charter schools and vouchers, but not to worry: they're getting a little help from the fact that our municipalities and states are all basically broke, due to a combination of bad management, economic slowdown, and the aforementioned conservative ideologues. The result, here in New York City? Public schools have become de facto private schools. From the NYT:

According to dozens of interviews and submissions from more than 400 public school parents to SchoolBook, the education blog of The New York Times, classroom supplies can cost $400. Fifth-grade graduation dues can be $95. Elementary-school yearbooks go for $30. At some Manhattan schools, it is no longer deemed excessive for a class parent to hand a teacher a $1,000 gift card as an end-of-year thank you, even though Education Department regulations prohibit teachers from accepting personal gifts.

And the days of the free class trip are more or less over: a third-grade overnight to a nearby campsite can cost $120, and for internationally minded high school students wishing to join classmates and a teacher in far-flung locales, $3,500 is not unusual.

Not to worry: your child can still sit in an empty classroom with no teacher or school supplies for free. Fulfilling America's Promise™.

[NYT. Photo: AP]