The Cost of “Free” for Portland Public Schools

A few weeks ago, I find a letter in my daughter’s backpack stating that, “the dental exam provided showed no signs of cavity or infection”. This is an example of the public school system overstepping its boundaries. ViDA, the organization that funds dental, vision and hearing exams to Portland Public School has gotten itself into some hot water recently. But not for giving kids medical screenings without parental consent. They used $5,000 in donations to pay for an advertising slot on Oregon Public Broadcasting. ViDA gets its donations from big name sponsors like Walmart (State). So, I am at least comforted in the fact that none of the PPS budget is being spent on this program. While our children getting unsolicited dental exams at school may seem like harmless gesture, it is in reality a gross misappropriation of funds and resources. It also leaves parents like me, who are already providing their children with these necessities, feeling like their toes have been stepped on.

Nobody likes being deceived, no matter what the product of that deception is. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth when I send my children to school for an education and they are instead removed from class for medical exams that I had no knowledge of. It is not ridiculous for a parent to play the “my child, my responsibility” card under any conditions. In fact, it is exactly that attitude that should be encouraged by the public school system. Giving children services at school that have not been asked for or even consented to by the parents is not only discouraging, it is a flat out violation.

The idea that the parents should be expected to emotionally and financially support their children completely seems like common sense to me. But according to the widely available services for my kids at school, maybe I am the minority. I would not have had my children if I could not afford to feed, clothe and care for them. Anything less than this is absolutely unacceptable in my book. With that said, I also understand that many parents have fallen on hard times due to the recession and other circumstances. I cannot ignore the fact that there are many children in Portland Public Schools that are in dire need of services provided by their schools, including free/reduced price meals, dental, vision and hearing exams. These services are an absolute necessity for some of my children’s classmates. But, I do disagree with the automatic outflow of them without solicitation or discretion. Not all PPS students are in need of this. 71% of my children’s schoolmates were eligible for free lunches during the 2011-2012 school year (CCD). These services cost money and time; resources that could be used to improve the actual product of our public schools, which is an education for all children, rich and poor alike. And while I am comforted by ViDA paying for the medical screenings, the free/reduced price lunches and free breakfast do come out of the school’s budget.

But it doesn’t end at breakfast. I pack lunches for both of my children every day. I assumed that this gave some degree of control over what they are eating for the only meal they eat away from home during the school week. This was an illusion. The lunch room has a table stocked with chocolate, strawberry and regular cow’s milk free for any child who wants one, or two, or three. While the school offers these choices to my children, I get to read notes that come home from their school asking all parents to please remind their children not to share food at lunch as many of the students have food allergies. My children do not have food allergies but we make food choices that we believe are just as essential as avoiding foods that you have an allergy to. I choose to feed my family a minimal amount of animal products. And when we do drink cow’s milk or eat an animal we choose do so in a mindful way, organic, free-range and free of antibiotics and growth hormones. Just as the parent of a child with peanut allergies doesn’t feed their child peanut butter because of the damage this would do to the child, I don’t feed my children animal products in excess because of the damage an animal based diet has on a health and overall well-being. And when my child’s school offers Alpenrose chocolate cow’s milk every day, I view this as a threat to their health.

So, just how much do these services cost Portland Public Schools? If we only look at my children’s school, Clinton Kelly Elementary, during the 2012-2013 school year there were a total of 570 students. And 407 of those students were eligible for free lunches (CCD). The first glaring outpoint is that according to these numbers 71.4% of parents apparently can’t afford to send their kid to school with lunch or even pay the school to feed their child. But since I can’t make the argument that parents should just take better responsibility for their kids, then let’s look at the cost of providing breakfast as well as milk at lunch to the children of families who can afford to feed them, the remaining 28.6%. A box of milk costs around $.40 and an individually wrapped breakfast pastry costs about $.97. Let’s say hypothetically, that on any given day 70% of kids not eligible for free lunch, do eat the breakfast as well as help themselves to one of the milk boxes at lunch. That is 114 kids who don’t need the school’s help, they will consume $201.78 worth of food a day at the schools expense. With 180 days in the average public school year, the yearly cost comes to $36,320.40 not including the labor cost for serving the food. Thirty-six thousand dollars a year is about the annual salary for a first-year elementary school teacher (PPS). And this is just one school’s yearly cost for this totally unnecessary service. I am sure that my children’s teachers would agree that this money could be better spent. Kelly Elementary specifically has a higher student to teacher ratio than the national average by 2.43 students (CCD).

If we continued to provide the current services to a generous number of children only after the parents have been required to complete an application determining their family’s need for each service individually, we would be removing the unnecessary cost of giving services to families who do not need them. You don’t need to do the math to conclude that we could save money by fine tuning the system to continue providing services to those who need them and not providing them to those who don’t.

The price we pay for our current system is much more than financially costly. The pride gained from keeping your personal and familial responsibilities your own has gotten lost somewhere. When an outside party steps in and takes a piece of that responsibility from a parent or any person, it should not go unchallenged. Taking responsibility away from the responsible party is not the best solution in most cases. If every morning before my son woke up in the morning, I quietly slipped his shoes on and tied the laces for him, he would never learn to put on and tie his own shoes. And even worse he would never experience the pride of successfully accomplishing that task. I wonder how many parents like me got that letter in their child’s backpack and didn’t call the school office to ask why their child’s mouth was being examined by an unknown dentist without parental consent. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t call and complain. “The schools are already so overwhelmed” I thought, “Why ruffle any feathers unnecessarily?” In hindsight this is of course a mistake. How are they to know that I do not need or want these services unless I tell them? And that is exactly the point I make here. Such services should not be provided unless I, the parent, the responsible party applies for said services. Our public schools would not only save money, they would prevent the social affect that the current system has on parents and ultimately the community as a whole. That affect is parents taking less and less responsibility for their children.

Parents begin sending their kids to school without breakfast because PPS offers a free breakfast to every student who walks through the doors every morning without discretion. Literally the breakfast cart and lunch lady stands directly inside the main entrance, with a smile and an outstretched hand she makes eye contact with every child as he/she comes to school and asks them if they would like breakfast. It’s not an easy offer to turn down. Especially for kids like mine who do not have sugary foods available to them every day at home. Homemade granola with rice milk for breakfast doesn’t hold a candle to a sweet pastry and chocolate milk in the eyes of my 6 and 7 year old children. After they have already eaten my breakfast, they’ll take the pastry and chocolate milk for a post breakfast dessert. This is a frustrating reality that I have never had the opportunity to opt out of since my children started school.

The same well-meaning parent chooses not to pay for dental, vision and hearing exams for their children because the school already provides that service for free. Why pay when I can get it for free seems logical but, in fact we are paying for it, our children are paying for it and our children’s teachers are paying for it.

Asking our public schools to stop offering such services would be grossly unrealistic, not to mention cruel. But it is certainly not ridiculous to require parents to apply for the benefits that they have a need for.

Works Cited

CCD, Common Core of Data. “National Center for Educational Statistics.” Institute of Education Services, 2012. Web. 17 05 2014. <;.

PPS, Portland Public Schools. Teacher Salary Schedule. Portland, Oregon, 2014. Web. 18 05 2014.

State, Oregon Secretary of. Elections Division Case Number 11-102 CS. Judgement. Salem,Oregon, 2011. Web. 17 05 2014. <;.



2 thoughts on “The Cost of “Free” for Portland Public Schools

  1. Hi. I just came across this post as I was fretting about my daughter’s sugar intake at a demographically similar PPS school (I Googled “chocolate milk in Portland schools). Did you ever contact anyone about your concerns? Is there any way to organize for healthier options? Has this already been tried fifty times and shut down? Thanks!

    • Hello,
      I did contact the school & school board, both of which had little to no interest in creating a solution to this for families.
      The best advice I can give is to teach your kids about these issues & encourage them to make mindful choices at school. They are a lot more powerful than we give them credit for.
      Best to you,

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