Course-related user fees. You know what those are, right? Anyone who has registered a student in a public Alabama middle or high school has seen that list of user fees for the courses that your child will take for the upcoming school year. That list of fees can add up to a very large amount of money that you pay up front, during registration, in some cases weeks before the new school year begins.
These course-related user fees are not optional. If you want your child to take that course, then you must pay the user fee.
While it is hoped that schools have developed a waiver policy for students for whose families these fees would be a hardship, it appears that school officials require families to ask for the fee reduction rather than granting it up front based on the known status of eligibility for reduced or free meals.
$38 Million in User Fees for Public Education Last Year
Families in Alabama paid $38 million in required user fees for their children to receive a public education for the FY13 school year, or an average of $95.84 per student*. That amount represents a $10 million increase since the FY07 school year, where families paid, on average, $72.22. That is a 33% increase in user fees for public education. During the same period of time, state funding for public schools provided through the K-12 Foundation Program decreased by approximately 3.5%.
These are not fees for extracurricular activities or sports. These are the amounts that school districts reported as required dues and fees.
Put another way, in FY07, 19 school systems charged families more than $100 per student enrolled in grades 6-12. By FY13, the number of school systems charging more than $100 student enrolled in grades 6-12 had nearly doubled to 35 systems. And this was done during the time of the national economic downturn.
[For the full list of fees by district as well as the data, go here.]
This shift of funding for public schools to the consumers of public education is not only worrisome, but pushes the limits of legality. The law is clear that (1) no fees can be charged to “children in the first six grades of school” and also that (2) fees cannot be charged for courses required for graduation. It is the local interpretation of these two laws that has resulted in varying user fee collection policies across Alabama’s 135 school districts.
Best I can tell, no court challenge has ever been made challenging the legality of these fees. Hmmmm.
With Hoover City Schools’ Board of Education looking to expand their user-fee-charging capacity by charging students to ride school buses to and from school, the time is right to take a long, hard look at these fees to determine whether we, the taxpayers and financial supporters of public education in Alabama, believe these user fees are appropriate and necessary.
Hoover City Schools Board of Education attorney Donald Sweeney accurately points out in his defense of that board’s approving a fee for students to ride buses, “fees for school-related activities have been in place for years with full knowledge of the State Department of Education.” The fees that Sweeney refers to are “incidental fees”.
The user fees that are exhibited here are anything but “incidental”. They have become, in fact, part and parcel of the expectation of families registering their children for public schools.
In Part 2 of this series, we looked through at four types of fees:
- Course-related fees
- School supply fees
- Field trip fees
- School-related fees
We are now going to take a look at number of examples of course-related fees. With zero guidance (or interference, some might say) from the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE), it appears that boards of education and the school officials they employ have taken a “what the market will bear” approach to charging fees for courses.
In doing so, some districts have clearly created at best a two-tiered level of educational offerings: advanced courses, academies and electives for those who can pay, and a bare minimum of choices for those who cannot.
At worst, school officials have created an expectation among families in Alabama that if you want more than the bare minimum course offerings for which our state and local taxes are used, start saving for school registration now. Really. Now.
Click here to view a PDF of a sample of course-related user fees charged by various districts across the state. The county districts’ course-related user fee information was very difficult to find online. Not having a good track record with information requests with school districts in Alabama, the only course-related user fee schedules that are included are ones that could be found online.
Additional course fees were found embedded in full course guides, but were cumbersome in their presentation and thus pulled out and put into this Google spreadsheet.
No Advanced Placement exam fees were included in this list, as the cost per exam is set at $89 per exam, or $56 for students eligible for the reduced cost. Check out this post for more information on AP.
Looking through these user fees, it is quite clear that school officials feel very comfortable charging for anything outside of the “4-by-4” curriculum of 4 English, 4 Math, 4 Social Studies, and 4 Science classes (though the labs for those science classes typically carry a lab fee).
You will see the familiar art, photography, and music class user fees…ones that we have all acquiesced to paying…but you will also see a whole new round of user fees connected to the explosion of career academies and career technical offerings. With no prohibition against charging families user fees for these classes, school officials have instituted standard charges, ranging from $20 to $30 per course.
That adds up for Alabama’s families. And because school officials have taken the view that the only way they can offer career academy and technical courses is to charge families user fees, those courses rarely make their way into the poorer-funded school districts. Which results in those who have family money to pay-to-learn having access to a wider range of educational offerings.
What You Can Do
Take the time to look carefully at the course-related user fees during school registration this summer. What do you see? Are the user fees listed on that registration sheet appropriate? Have you accepted that state funding, combined with local funding is simply not enough to cover the cost of the public education that your board of education has decided to deliver to the children in your community?
For the past four years, I have been collecting fee sheets and field trip fees and all sorts of required supply lists…whatever I might stumble across when researching Alabama’s school districts. I simply cannot collect them fast enough to share them, to start this discussion.
Remember me when you pay your course-related user fees for the upcoming school year. Send me an email at asc(at)alabamaschoolconnection.org telling me how much you paid per child, for what courses, for what reasons.
And share your comments here or on the Facebook page. Let’s talk about this.
This problem of user fees is not unique to Alabama. But if Alabamians continue to allow a pay-to-learn culture to expand across the public schools in our state, we will end up further segregating our school systems based on the ability of families to pay, exacerbating the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
In Part 4, we will look at the other types of user fees that school officials collect from Alabama’s families.
NOTE:*The calculation is as follows: Revenue Code 7260 (Required Dues and Fees) amounts for all school districts for FY13 were divided by the number of students in grades six through 12. No fees are allowed to be collected for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.