School Fees Pose Problems in Several States

Last Updated: November 29, 2011

This article appeared in the November 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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A number of states have turned to imposing student fees for various educational services as a way to meet budget needs, but those actions are often on shaky legal ground, as indicated by recent events in South Dakota, Indiana, and California.

Some South Dakota districts opened the school year with new fees for preschool and driver education programs. But the practice has largely stopped following a letter from the state's assistant attorney general, which said that unless schools have specific authority to charge fees, they are required to offer programs without charge.

South Dakota law already authorizes student fees for before- and after-school programs, adult education classes, parking, and busing. Some districts have started asking for donations to cover costs and are looking for other ways to pay for preschool and driver training courses.

In Indiana, a parent in Franklin Township, a suburb near Indianapolis, has sued the district over transportation fees now being charged to parents for school bus service. The district ended bus service after a referendum for additional school funding failed in spring elections. The district had already drawn a legal challenge over bus fees, and last year the state's attorney general told Franklin Township that this charge is a form of tuition, which is prohibited. (See RSFN coverage here.)

The difference this year is that a nonprofit company is now offering the bus service and charging the fee, not the school district. But a second opinion by the attorney general also prohibited the current practice. Plaintiff Lora Hoagland says she can’t afford the fees and has problems driving her children to school. Her attorney has filed for class action status.

California is facing a renewed lawsuit over its lack of enforcement of laws prohibiting school fees. Earlier this year, the state settled a class action lawsuit that was brought in 2010 against the state for allowing school districts to violate the state constitution by charging school fees. The suit was brought by a coalition of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which extensively investigated the practice and found students being charged a number of fees in districts, including fees for textbooks. (See previous coverage here and here.)

Proposed legislation helped stop the lawsuit, but the bill, A.B. 165, was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. A.B. 165 would have provided a complaint process for parents and students to use when charged fees. In addition, it authorized audits of school districts to include reporting on whether districts had charged fees.

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Read more from the November 2011 Rural Policy Matters.