Alabama’s families footed more than $40 million of the bill for their children’s free public education during the 2013-2014 school year. That averages more than $104 per student and is up nearly 14% from the 2012-2013 school year.
Public school “user fees” are going up, even while more than 59% of Alabama’s children qualified for free- or reduced-price meals during the 2013-2014 school year.
As the Alabama legislature debates how to fix a colossal hole in the General Fund budget, Alabama’s families should pay close attention to whether the legislators will pull money from the Education Trust Fund (ETF) to fill the hole. If they do, that could force school officials to shift even more of the cost of public education to Alabama’s families.
In 2014, the Alabama School Connection took a look at “The Hidden Cost of Public Education“, delineating four ways in which school systems are easing the stress of decreases in state funding by asking families to pay more.
We now have five years of data to review. It paints a worrisome story for many of Alabama’s families.
- Course-related fees
- School supplies
- Field trips (curricular and co-curricular)
- School-related fees, including technology
Note that we’re not talking the “cookie dough” fundraisers that State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice referred to earlier this week during a press conference where he stressed the need to protect education funding.
We’re talking user fees that families must pay to schools in order for their children to register for and participate in public education.
And this news release highlights the Huntington Bank Backpack Index which predicts the cost of supplies and activity fees for school children.
Using a list of typical supplies and expected activity fees, Huntington Bank predicted the following costs for the 2015-2016 school year:
- $649 for elementary school children, a 1 percent increase compared to 2014
- $941 for middle school children, a 2.5 percent jump compared to 2014
- $1,402 for high school students, a 9 percent increase compared to 2014
What the Data for Alabama’s Families Shows
The figures presented for Alabama families do not take into account any extracurricular fees. See the Methodology section below for full details on what these number represent.
These figures cover the 2009-2010 through 2013-2014 school years.
Figures are broken down by district to clearly reflect the wide variations across the state.
Note that in FY07 (the 2006-2007 school year), only 19 school districts were taking in more than $100 per student in user fees. In FY14 (the 2013-2014 school year), that figure has doubled to 38 school districts.
Scroll through these maps to see how the amount has changed through the years. Click on any school district to view the details for that year. A “rank” is included to reflect the highest (number 1) to the lowest amount of required dues and fees collected relatively by district.
Here are the figures displayed in a way that juxtaposes the average amount collected per student with the district’s percentage of children eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. The median is displayed on each axis. Those districts in the upper right-hand quadrant are those having a higher-than-median percentage of children eligible for free- or reduced-price meals and a higher-than-median average amount paid for required dues and fees.
Here are the numbers themselves, in a straightforward chart.
Finally, here’s a look at rankings showing which districts collect the most in required dues and fees per grade 6 through 12 student.
Why Does It Matter?
When families are asked to pay for “additional” opportunities for their children to learn, states run a serious risk of creating a two-tiered educational system where the haves have more access than the have-nots.
In other words, that two-tiered education system is one where there is a minimum educational standard provided by the state and a higher educational standard available to those who can afford it by paying a fee or otherwise purchasing it directly from their pocket.
Is this what public education is supposed to look like?
How much did your family pay to enroll in public school this year? Let us know.
Methodology: Required Dues and Fees
“Required dues and fees” are those monies paid to the local school by families on behalf of students for academic reasons, including fees paid for lockers and parking and driver’s education. Monies paid for extracurricular or club activities are considered to be “self-imposed” and are not included here. Those fees are reported separately and will be the subject of a future post.
According to state law, “No fees of any kind shall be collected from children attending any of the first six grades during the school term supported by public taxation” (Code of Alabama, Section 16-10-6). That has been interpreted to mean Kindergarten through fifth grade.
School districts also are not allowed to collect fees for any courses required for graduation (Code of Alabama, Section 16-13-13). The definition of required courses is stated in section 16-6B-2 of the Code of Alabama: “courses which are required to be taken by every student enrolled in public schools in the State of Alabama”.
The ALSDE has issued guidance to school districts about student fees, stating:
Student fees (excluding drivers education) may only be charged for materials and equipment used in instructional courses, and that the fees collected may only be used in the course for which the fee was collected. Actions against the non-paying student, such as withholding grades, report cards, transcripts, academic recognitions, and graduation activities, are prohibited.
Required Dues and Fees: The Numbers Used for This Analysis
The numbers used in this analysis were obtained from Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) financial reports for FY10 through FY14 reflecting collections reported by school districts under revenue code “7260”. Alabama’s fiscal year runs from October 1 to September 30.
Because fees are not required of students in Kindergarten through fifth grade, enrollment numbers used in this analysis only reflect students enrolled in grades six through 12 for each district. Enrollment data for the 2009-2010 school year is coupled with FY10; 2010-2011 enrollment data is coupled with FY11, and so on. Enrollment figures were obtained from Public Data reports in the ALSDE Report Portal.
Per student amounts were calculated for each district by dividing the total collected under 7260 by the enrollment figures for grades six through 12 for each year.
A Note Regarding Reliability of Data
The data used in this analysis is, of course, only as reliable as it is reported accurately by local school districts. While all school districts are required to use the same accounting codes and accounting standards, differences in reporting likely exist. It is impossible to determine whether school districts are accurately recording dues and fees that they require parents and families to pay without individually questioning all bookkeepers across all 134 school districts.
Some inconsistencies are glaring, for example, Birmingham City School district had zero collections reported under revenue code 7260 for four of the five years reviewed.
Submitting public information requests is not a method that has proved timely and fruitful, thus these publicly-available numbers are used.
To school district officials: if you disagree with the numbers in this analysis, please provide full financial reports outlining transactions attributed to revenue code 7260 for whichever years for which you are requesting the review. The data should include cost center, function, program and object codes and be transmitted electronically in Excel format.
Data must be submitted within one week of your initial request for review. Data that is not submitted within a week of the review request will not be considered, and the review will be terminated. Requests for review must be received by August 17, 2015. Data must be received by August 24, 2015. Send requests to asc(at)alabamaschoolconnection.org.
Without full cooperation and access to school personnel to answer questions and reformat data if necessary, it is possible that reviews will be unable to be completed. Wherever possible, reviews will be completed within 120 days of receiving the data if full cooperation is obtained.