As School Fees Rise, So Do Questions Over What Constitutes A Free Education

Dec 15, 2014
Originally published on December 16, 2014 9:40 am

Only a dozen states allow schools to charge for bus service but the number is expected to grow.

Parents in Indiana have filed a lawsuit, now before the state Supreme Court, arguing that bus fees violate the state’s constitutional guarantee to a free education. But state officials across the country say budget cuts have severely hampered their ability to continue to provide transportation and other services for free.

Indiana officials also say that caps on property taxes approved by voters in 2008 have also cut into school funds.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks to Mike Griffith, senior policy analyst for the non-profit, non-partisan organization, Education Commission of the States, about the questions that arise when families have to pay for the school bus and other services.

Interview Highlights: Mike Griffith

On the issues in the debate

“The debate is part of a larger debate on fees in general; transportation fees are part of that. There are also districts that charge for fees for supplies, textbooks, and other services in schools and people say if a student can’t get to school, if a student can’t afford the textbooks or the supplies then you’re kind of taking away the definition of a free education. What we’ve seen is parents start to become upset with that but local policy makers push back and say ‘we have to charge a fee for these services or we just can’t provide them. We just don’t have the funds to do that.’ So we’ve seen both things happen.”

On what happened in California

“What happened in California is they were charging fees for a whole host of activities within a school. In some cases those were activities that students needed to participate into graduate. So, language classes they had to pay for their own textbooks or their own learning material. There were registration fees for certain courses and there were lab fees and so on. The parents said ‘this is finally enough’ and took it to court. What the state did is settle out of court essentially and say ‘look we understand it’s gone too far at this point.’ They sent letters to every school district saying you cannot charge for fees that are mandatory for a student to attend school. But we’re seeing that in school districts across the country and quite frankly why parents are upset, because it takes away the definition of a free education. Some school districts charge just to register for a school year.”

On how these fees affect low-income families

“Most provide a waiver for these fees for students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch. To put that in perspective, you can be a single parent with two children making $37,000 a year and you would not qualify for free and reduced price lunch. So not only would your son and daughter not get a free lunch program, you might have to pay for bus services, for textbook fees, for supply fees—that can be a pretty big burden for a single parent.”

Guest

  • Mike Griffith, senior policy analyst for the non-profit, non-partisan organization, Education Commission of the States.
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