Fees for Students Redefine "Free" Public School

As cash-strapped public schools attempt to squeeze every possible dollar out of their budgets, an unpleasant reality awaits parents: They will most likely have to pay for programs and services that schools once provided for free.

Consider Keller Independent School District just north of Fort Worth, where students who ride the bus will now pay $185 each per semester. Rather than scrap busing altogether after voters rejected a property tax hike in June to make up for lost state revenue, the district opted to institute fares.

The $4 billion cut in education financing at the state level for 2012-13 means these extra charges will become increasingly common. “We’re going to see districts charging fees for things that they have always been able to but just haven’t chosen to in the past,” said David Thompson, a former general counsel for the Texas Education Agency who now represents school districts.

Across the country, such fees also threaten to draw lawsuits — like the one affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union in California filed in September against what they called the state’s “pay to learn” public schools — about what it means to provide a “free” public education under state constitutions.

Texas law gives districts broad authority in deciding what fees to charge students. There is one firm boundary: If it is an expense related to an activity or item required for a course grade, like textbooks, districts cannot charge for it. Basics like pens, erasers and notebooks do not count, and any charges related to activities or services where participation is voluntary — extracurricular activities, class trips and, yes, transportation — are fair game. The district must also have a process to waive or reduce fees for students who cannot afford them. Keller ISD, for example, will charge $100 each for students who qualify for free and reduced lunches.

Michael Griffith, a school finance expert with the Education Commission on the States, said that while fees for extracurricular activities had been on the rise since before the economic downturn, more schools are now exploring ways to pass on basic costs to parents.  

“We see a lot of evidence now that there are districts and schools pushing the line,” Mr. Griffith said. That can often happen in letters home, he said, with teachers implying to parents that certain supplies are required and that students can’t show up without them.

Charging fees can also hurt poor students, especially those whose families just miss qualifying for a waiver, said Caroline Holcombe, a research analyst at Children at Risk, a Houston-based advocacy group.

“It’s likely money families just don’t have,” she said. “And if they are choosing between the next meal they are going to put on the table, whether they are going to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, and whether they are going to allow their kids to spend time after school at an activity, that’s a tough decision.”

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