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JENKINS: The hidden cost that comes with a 'free' education

Last month, at my son's high school curriculum day, his AP physics teachers informed us cheerfully that they would be building trebuchets this semester. I thought, "How cool is that? What a great way to teach physics."Silly me. I didn't understand what he was really saying: that I would be building a trebuchet this semester.

Before all the homework Nazis out there start to hyperventilate, let me state that I did not do all the work on my son's physics project. He designed it himself, using information gleaned from the Internet, and he and I both put in many hours on the actual building and testing of the mechanism.

But he's a 17-year-old kid. He doesn't know anything about carpentry beyond what he learned as a 2-year-old, when I caught him refurbishing the dining room furniture with a keyhole saw. His idea of a power tool is a new app for his smart phone.

So I had to help -- all weekend long. Furthermore, time wasn't all I invested in the project.

You see, building a working (we hope) trebuchet from scratch requires raw materials: wood, fasteners, rope, gunpowder to make the projectiles explode on impact. (Just kidding about that last part.)

And raw materials cost money --about $40, in this case. Which might not sound like much, if I hadn't already just spent $50 on a new camera battery and a memory card so that my 13-year-old could work on HIS project, which was a video about James Ogelthorpe for his Georgia history class.

(I don't know much about it, except that the small pond in our neighborhood somehow morphed into the Atlantic Ocean, and some kid I'd never seen before took an ax to one of my trees.)

So there's $90 I dropped in one weekend solely so that my kids can get decent grades. And that's just one project apiece. My high-schooler told me yesterday that they're also going to be building airplanes. Anybody know where I can find a set of used ailerons cheap?

Look, I'm not complaining. I know my kids are getting a pretty good education out here in the comparatively affluent suburbs. I don't mind helping them with their projects -- building a trebuchet was actually kind of fun -- and I feel fortunate that, financially, we didn't have to choose between a new memory card and groceries.

But I can't help wondering how all of this "free" education is working out for kids whose parents aren't in the same position, who don't have either the time or the money to help. And I wonder if that isn't the real reason for the "achievement gap" that we hear so much about.

Unfortunately, I don't know what to do about it. But I do know this: if I ever decide to lay siege to my kids' school, I now have the means to do so.

Rob Jenkins is a local free lance writer and college professor. Email him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.