Task force wants districts to eliminate excessive student fees

For two years, state legislators and educational leaders have looked closely at the common practice of charging school and class fees to public school students.

Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, has been at the helm of the matter. During the 2016 session, she introduced House Concurrent Resolution 137, which called for a study into the use of student fees in public school systems.

Results from the study could potentially lead to legislation during next year’s session if the districts do not make their own adjustments.

“It was very disheartening to see some of these schools charging such enormous fees,” Smith said.

Statewide, fees ranged from $10 to $95. Districts said the funds were allocated for technology, homeroom, lockers, physical education uniforms, school supplies and many other items. Fees for dual enrollment reached up to $300 per course, plus the cost of books, according to the House and Senate Committee report on H.C.R. 137.

Michael Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, sits on the state’s task force for school fees and has recommended that districts eliminate class or supply fees related to required courses.

“If it’s required, then legally you have to meet the provisions of a Free Appropriate Public Education,” he said. “One of the prime examples is a science. A lab fee — is that appropriate?”

Faulk said he is cautioning districts to make “common sense” changes now for required course fees before any legislation would require it.

Along with class fees, Smith said costs for field trips and fees for advanced courses should be reviewed.

“We’re trying to get a handle on it because we want to make sure minority kids, Latino kids and low socioeconomic kids are not missing out on academic opportunities,” she said. “If we disallow them exposure and experiences, we are hurting the child, in my opinion.”

The amount of fees wasn’t the only issue unveiled from the 2016 study. While nearly all of the public school districts responded concerning the presence of fees, 71 percent said they did not provide families with transparent language on how those fees are actually spent. Many do not provide information for families that cannot afford the fees.

Calcasieu Parish public schools charge supply or registration fees and class fees. Holly Holland, district spokeswoman, said supply fees range from $10 to $45 and are capped by the school administrative directors.

Class fees are specific to each course and have no district mandated cap, Holland said. If a family can’t afford the fees, “activities academic in nature will not be withheld,” she said. The district adopted an official hardship policy last December.

Lake Charles Charter Schools charge a supply fee that ranges from $15 to $60 to cover “classes, identification badges and support school-wide incentives,” said Sabrah Kingham, director of education. When a student or family can’t pay a fee, “administration and parents work together to find alternative solutions,” she said.

Waivers are issued on a “case-by-case basis,” Kingham added.

Both local public school systems said they use state allocations to cover the cost of dual-enrollment courses for high school students.

Introduced in 2017, House Resolution 183 asked districts to adopt and actively publicize a transparent fee policy that includes information on hardship waivers, even if there is no penalty for lack of payment.

Roughly half of the state’s districts have a no penalty policy. Erin Bendily, Louisiana Education Department assistant superintendent for policy and governmental affairs and representative on the school fees task force, said districts should pay attention to the transparent availability of waivers.

“Published policy is still important in order to clearly communicate to students and families that student’s educational opportunities will not be limited due to inability to pay,” she said. “Too often, students simply don’t pursue certain opportunities or courses because of associated fees, never even pursuing some sort of economic hardship waiver.”

Bendily said the task force will meet one more time to examine the changes districts have made in light of Faulk’s recommendations and H.R. 183.

“There’s not a decision that legislation will be proceeded with, but we hope that even without legislation they will take note and respond,” she said.

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