State Board of Education scrutinizing school fees
After California lawsuit, superintendents asked to clarify policies
The president of the Maryland State Board of Education is gathering information on classroom fees in public schools, in light of a California lawsuit about what a free public education really means.
In a Sept. 28 letter to the 24 public school superintendents in Maryland, state board President James H. DeGraffenreidt Jr. asked them to send the board information about their school systems' policies on charging course-related fees, a list of course-related fees imposed by each school, whether fees can be waived and a description of the waiver process.
"Maryland has a free public education responsibility," DeGraffenreidt wrote in his one-page letter. "Because this is a difficult economic time for school systems and families, school fees may become an issue of concern."
DeGraffenreidt could not be reached for further comment. The deadline for superintendents to respond to his letter is Nov. 30.
Patricia B. O'Neill, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education, and John Woolums, director of government relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said that in a meeting with county board presidents, DeGraffenreidt indicated his concern extended to fees charged for extracurricular activities. The letter does not mention extracurricular fees.
Woolums said he was unaware of any Maryland statute or regulation specifically addressing either kind of fee. No uniform policy among Maryland school systems exists either, he said.
"Get your ducks in a row, and be prepared to explain the reasonableness of what you're doing," Woolums said in explaining MABE's advice to its members.
DeGraffenreidt indicated that "advocates from Montgomery County" brought the issue to his attention, O'Neill said.
Janis Sartucci, a member of the Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County, a group that has been critical of Montgomery County Public Schools on a number of issues, said the group began telling state officials in 2008 that the school system was violating the state constitution by charging course fees.
In January 2009, Montgomery County Public Schools agreed to cut the number of classroom fees it would charge. Fees for science lab supplies, instruction workbooks and gym towels were cut, but remained in place for art courses where student projects would be taken home. The school system's policy does not outline how much the various remaining fees should be. Students may obtain a waiver for course fees.
Montgomery school officials said they would provide $1.53 million to various schools to help them cover fees that otherwise could have been assessed. Before the change, different high schools were charging different fees for the same course, documents showed.
"Based upon the advice of our attorneys, we believe that what we are doing complies with the law," O'Neill said.
Sartucci has challenged the school system's fee policy twice before the state Board of Education and said she plans to return later this month to raise the matter again.
"Apparently, now DeGraffenreidt is taking matters into his own hands. I'm thrilled; I'm very excited to hear this," Sartucci said.
Montgomery County Public Schools charges a $30 extracurricular fee per school year per student, regardless of the nature or number of those activities. The fee can be lowered to $15 based on family income. O'Neill said the fees do not pay for all the costs of the activities.
"I would hate to see sports go away because it is a hook that keeps many kids engaged, provides opportunities for some kids to go to college on college scholarships," O'Neill said.
Sartucci, however, argued O'Neill was trying to mislead people into believing programs such as football and other sports could be removed from schools as a result of DeGraffenreidt's findings. She said her advocacy has not dealt with extracurricular fees.
The Howard County Public School System placed a moratorium on schools requesting payment for curricular, activity and supply fees in October 2008, and current policy states students may not be charged any classroom fees. Extracurricular fees may be charged for personalized items such as football uniforms, and for extracurricular items students keep after their participation is complete.
A March 2009 Howard County schools staff report on activity fees remarked that elementary and middle schools that did collect activity fees used them in several ways and differed in what they asked parents to supply students.
"Inconsistencies prevail from one school to another in both fees and supply lists," the report states.
It also pointed out fees were not uniform across schools, and paid for everything from news magazine subscriptions to calculators and workbooks.
The report cited a 1987 opinion from the state Attorney General's Office that said in part, "We are safe in saying that anything directly related to a school's curriculum must be available to all without charge."
The California lawsuit DeGraffenreidt referenced in his letter was filed Sept. 10 by the American Civil Liberties Union against the state and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).
It followed an ACLU report entitled "Pay-To-Learn" that identified 50 California school districts that the organization claimed charged illegal educational fees to students. The fees were charged for materials for fine arts classes, textbooks, lab privileges in science classes and extracurricular activities, the ACLU said.