U. S. Justice Suit Aims To Block Tuition Charge
The Justice Department has filed suit in Federal District Court in Alexandria, Va., to prevent the Fairfax County school board from charging families living on military bases for the education of their children.
Although officials from the 4,000 districts nationwide that receive federal impact-aid funds have been outspoken in their opposition to cuts in the program recommended by the Reagan Administration, the Fairfax school board was the first in the country to threaten military families with tuition charges to make up for the lost support.
However, some other states, including Texas and North Carolina, have also authorized local school systems to charge similar fees.
A decision in favor of the Justice Department's position could deter school boards in those states and elsewhere across the nation
from reacting to federal impact-aid cuts in the same manner.
The lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 30, is aimed at blocking the school district from acting on the tuition threat--and sending a signal of encouragement to other districts--according to a Justice Department official. The department has also named the Commonwealth of Virginia, whose legislature passed a law last spring authorizing the imposition of such fees, as a defendant in the lawsuit.
This year, Fairfax County's public schools received $6.9 million in impact aid, primarily to offset the cost of educating 1,570 children whose families live on the Fort Belvoir army base, according to Howard L. Jones, the school district's budget-services coordinator.
Mr. Jones said the school district notified parents at the military installation this fall that they may be assessed fees, ranging from $1,300 for kindergartners to $3,170 for high-school students for, the current school year.
The new Virginia law would permit the school system to charge tuition if this year's federal impact-aid award to Fairfax County covers less than half the cost of educating the children who live on the military base. The school system's impact-aid award, like those given to most school systems, is likely to be considerably lower this year than last.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to slash financing for the impact-aid program from its 1981 level of $756 million to $475 million in the current fiscal year. The Senate Appropriations Committee was scheduled to meet last Thursday for preliminary action on that bill.
The Reagan Administration, however, has recommended that Congress allocate only $352 million for the program this year.
The school system's justification for charging tuition to the students from military families was explained by Thomas J. Cawley, the school district attorney. "There is no governmental relationship between the base and the county," he said. "They have their own police force, fire protection, roads, and courts. They make no claims that the county is obliged to provide them with those services, yet they persist in saying that the county owes their children an education."
Three of the elementary schools operated by the county were built by the military and are located on the base, but the school district "is using the schools for their benefit, not ours," Mr. Cawley said.
"Just look at the schools on the Quantico Marine Base," which is located in adjoining Prince William County, he said. "The federal government runs those schools, not the county. We feel that the people at Fort Belvoir don't have to attend the Fairfax County schools. The federal government can provide them with an education just as they do at Quantico."
Mr. Cawley also said that families who live on the base, other than those who claim residence in Virginia, do not pay state income and property taxes--the chief sources of school aid in Virginia. Therefore, he said, the federal government should help offset the cost of educating the children of those families.
The Justice Department lawsuit contends, in part, that the tuition charges would violate a federal law prohibiting taxation of military families in more than one state, according to Robert L. Stevenson, a department spokesman. The lawsuit also claims that imposition of the fees violates the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against families who happen to be in the military.