EDUCATION MATTERS: Fees for public education

Awareness of illegal fees being charged to parents for public school activities has increased, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time for school districts.

State money for education continues to decline precipitously. This, combined with higher costs associated with rising health care expenses for school employees and stricter academic standards imposed by legislators, has squeezed school districts in unprecedented ways.

It’s hardly news that, as a result, school districts are laying off teachers, increasing class sizes and slashing programs to the bone.
Yet mandated programs, those required by law by the government, continue to be required – and under-funded. So the softer kind of mandated programs, those insisted upon by parents and students who cherish their electives, are being threatened.

Money is in short supply these days for art, music, theater, technology, physical education and other programs many educators and parents consider essential for a well-rounded education. If it’s not directly connected to state-tested subjects – reading, writing, math, history, science – then it’s potentially on the chopping block.

Extracurricular clubs and activities, and after-school programs like athletics, are also facing tough times.

The solution for many districts has been to establish foundations that can accept donations, organize fundraising events and lobby communities and local businesses to pony up some cash.

But in their eagerness to convince parents to donate, many school districts have crossed the line, turning what are supposed to be voluntary contributions into a fee.

If a parent receives paperwork from a public school for any activity that refers to a “fee,” a “financial obligation” or a “due date,” it is a violation of the law.

Forms sometimes state that no student will be excluded from an activity due to lack of funds – students just need to notify the teacher or coach if they can’t afford to pay. But this too is illegal. No student attending a public school can be required to pay for these types of activities – whether rich or poor. Nor must students “self-identify” as poor.

Sixth-grade camp and field trips

An item in the March 10 Del Mar Union School District school board agenda indicated that the district, as with most other districts, is depending heavily on parent money to provide school-sponsored activities.

Issued by DMUSD assistant superintendent of business services Dena Whittington, agenda item 10.3 listed the top 22 vendors and general fund expenses for calendar year 2009. As an aside, this interesting report showed that the biggest expense by far was San Diego Gas & Electric, which cost the DMUSD $601,000 and is an ongoing expense. The number two spot, for textbooks, wasn’t even close, costing $394,000.

Although this is a bit off-topic, the third item on the list was for Car-A-Van, for transportation services, as required by law, to all identified special education students who need or request home-to-school transportation. The annual cost last year was more than $370,000, with about $80,000 reimbursed to the district by the state.

Whittington said the district transports 54 special education students, which amounts to just over $6,850 per pupil for transportation expenses alone. This is a perfect example of an unfunded mandate.

Back on topic, number six on the list was for $138,000 for Coach USA for “parent-paid field trips.” And 16th on the list went to YMCA Camping for just under $66,000 for “parent-paid sixth-grade camp.”

At least one school in the district sent a letter to sixth-grade parents informing them of their financial “obligation” to pay the cost of sixth-grade camp, which this year is about $310 per student for the five-day camp at either Marston or Cuyamaca.

A letter regarding sixth-grade camp issued from the district office never states that the cost is an obligation, so schools may be rephrasing the letter to indicate to parents that they must pay, which is illegal.

The district letter is directed to fifth-grade parents and alerts them about the following year’s camp and what the expected costs per pupil to the district will be. The letter specifically states that “no child will be excluded due to a lack of funds.”

But the letter does indicate the district would like parents to pay. It states the costs and reads: “For planning purposes, we would like you to know now what the anticipated direct cost will be for the five-day camp experience. … By providing you with this information early, we hope you will be better able to plan for the event as part of the family budget.”

Years ago, under Superintendent Rob Harriman, Del Mar paid for sixth-grade camp for every student. After Tom Bishop was hired, a change was made and parents were asked to absorb the cost. But it’s all in the phrasing.

Field trips pose a similar dilemma. It’s illegal for some students to go on field trips and others not, based on who pays. It’s also illegal to restrict attendance on field trips to only those who participate in fundraising activities. Furthermore, students cannot be required to raise and contribute a pre-determined amount of money.

According to Education Code [section 35330(b)(1)], “No pupil shall be prevented from making the field trip or excursion because of lack of sufficient funds.”

The costs for transporting students to and from field trips were “parent-paid,” as described in the report, but Holly McClurg, DMUSD’s assistant superintendent of instructional services, clarified that these were voluntary donations and parents are not charged for field trips.

“The field trips are funded by optional donations,” McClurg said in an email. “No child is prohibited from participating due to financial reasons.”

High school clubs and teams

Distances and costs for field trips and competitions ramp up considerably in high school for clubs and teams.

Trips lasting several days to locations nationwide are not uncommon, and the costs must be paid by the school district, voluntary donations, or a combination of both. Students who cannot pay cannot be restricted from attending, and there can be no forced fundraising and no requirement to self-identify as unable or unwilling to pay the cost.

The same rules apply to groups like the speech & debate team, math competitions, yearbook conventions or band ensembles.

Journalism classes often include competitions at national conventions across the country twice a year. In the past, parents of local journalism students have been told the amount of money “owed,” complete with due dates for submitting checks. Costs were for air fare, hotel and transportation. Including food and miscellaneous expenses, trips could easily run $500 or $600.

The problem is rampant. An e-mail from a parent in Poway told of fees being charged for her son to participate in track & field, as well as for the practices and uniforms. She said the school’s athletic department is requesting notification if there is a financial hardship. But requiring students or parents to expose financial hardship, or simply a refusal to give money for whatever personal reasons one might have, is not legal.

Fees imposed for any school-sponsored athletic activity are illegal. That includes uniforms, field trips, coaches’ salaries, field maintenance, equipment or other auxiliary costs associated with running the program.

Donations, obviously, are happily accepted. But if any student is cut from a team or restricted from participating for not paying a fee, it is illegal. That applies for all students, not just low-income kids.
An issue commonly raised is whether coaches and advisers can truly be objective and pick students who are the most talented and capable, without regard to funding needs. Does the son or daughter whose family just contributed a major gift to a school’s foundation to build a new science lab get cut from a team if they aren’t as skilled as a poorer student?

The latest trend is for high school athletic teams to transform themselves into “clubs” in order to circumvent the issue and allow organizers to charge for services. But a school cannot field a team that it does not supervise. And if it supervises a team, then it cannot charge fees.

Even in the San Diego Unified School District, where this issue of illegal parent fees has been front and center for many months, the practice continues, sometimes in insidious ways.

At Serra High School, for example, cheerleaders have three options for uniforms. They may be issued a loaner uniform by the school, they can buy a gently used uniform, or they can purchase custom uniforms. The cost of the custom uniform and optional clothing can cost close to $800: $115 shell with school lettering, $90 skirt, $59 shoes, $75 jersey, $30 pom-pom set, $62 cheer bag, $57 sweatshirt, $135 jacket, $60 pants, and on the list goes.

The uniform options are clearly not “uniform.” They establish easily identifiable tiers that separate some girls from others and can isolate those girls whose families are unable to afford the luxury of personalized outfits. The hierarchical pecking order common to most high schools connects popularity with money. So one can imagine how many low-income girls would want to be a cheerleader if they are forced to wear a used school uniform while standing next to a girl in a bright, new custom outfit.

“Girls will be forced into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ which is illegal,” said Serra parent and activist Sally Smith. A free public education guarantees a level playing field environment, she said.

An emotional issue

The issue is fraught with emotion and anxiety, because inadequate funding can trigger the cancellation of programs or suspension of activities. Students who can afford to pay for field trips, special clothes, supplies or equipment can become resentful of those who cannot pay, because not enough money from donations can mean the end of a valued program or the termination of that special, once-in-a-lifetime trip.

But a free public education must allow every student, rich or poor, access to the same opportunities as all other students. It’s what makes us unique – that all students, no matter their color or income level, have an equal chance at success in school, through hard work and determination.

In challenging economic times, it can be difficult to accept these democratic principles. But it’s important for many reasons, not the least of which is that little voice within each of us that knows exactly why laws like these, designed to protect the rights of the under-represented, are there.

Please forward any school-related letters or forms that indicate a required fee for a public school activity to Marsha Sutton at or fax it to (316) 223-4334. No individuals’ names will be used.

Related posts:

  1. EDUCATION MATTERS: Parent fees for public education come under scrutiny
  2. EDUCATION MATTERS: Del Mar dominates local 2009 education stories
  3. Del Mar education foundation ahead of pace
  4. EDUCATION MATTERS: Taking care of housekeeping
  5. EDUCATION MATTERS: What went wrong?

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Posted by on Mar 25, 2010. Filed under Archives, Education Matters. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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