The Utah Constitution dictates that public education be free for all kids, but parents know well the sting of dishing out money to cover costs of registration, lockers, extracurricular activities and other things that can add up to a chunk of the household budget. Now, the Legislature is poised to address the tricky subject of school fee assessment, which should be based on policies that are reasonable, consistent and understandable.
Currently, they’re not.
An audit last year revealed a hodgepodge of extracurricular fee assessments from school to school, some in the range of “unreasonable,” as defined by the courts. It also found a lack of transparency in how some fees are levied, a lack of accountability on how some of the money is spent and a lack of oversight by administrators on how, when and where a fee might be required for participation in various outside-the-classroom programs.
A task force is working on how best to sort out the current potpourri of fees, which should lead to policy changes by state-level administrators, or in statutory changes by lawmakers to make sure districts operate under transparent and consistent rules.
Separately, the Legislature will consider a measure this year that would have the state pick up the costs of curricular fees charged to students for things like registering for attendance, obtaining a locker and in some cases, acquiring supplies needed for required courses. Those fees could add up to a couple of hundred bucks per kid per year, or more. Analysts estimate it would cost upwards of $30 million annually for the state to cover the fees, which are said to be generally higher than those typically charged by schools in other states.
But whether the state should give families a break on fees is dependent on another question: Is there a better place to put state money into an education system that ranks low nationally in per-pupil appropriations? In recent years, the Legislature has advanced the cause of raising teacher pay to curb rising dropout rates among educators. It’s also invested more in programs to advance STEM curricula and to create formalized criteria to grade individual schools on performance.8 comments on this story
These are all worthy efforts that should continue, which will require continued funding. The bill that would have the state cover fees, as proposed by Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, is well-intentioned and would clearly be welcomed by families with school-age kids. But the argument the bill is necessary to comply with constitutional precepts seems like a weak underpinning given that no court has thus far deemed fee assessment unconstitutional. And there are plenty of other education initiatives that could put that $30 million or so to good use.
Fees, whether curricular or extracurricular, should not be burdensome and should not be widely disparate from school district to school district. It’s important the Legislature keep watch over fee policies, but not to the distraction of its fundamental mission to make sure schools are properly funded, staffed and equipped to deliver a first-rate education.