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S.C. Court Upholds Summer-School Fee

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The South Carolina Supreme Court last month ruled that a school district did not violate the constitutional rights of two students when it charged them an $80 fee for summer-school classes.

School-law experts say they believe the case marks the first challenge to the widespread practice among school districts of charging summer fees.

The parents of two high-school students, Patricia Washington and Robert Blake, sued the Beaufort County public-school system five years ago. They claimed that the fee charged by the district for its summer session was illegal in light of the state's obligation under its constitution to provide a free public education and also violated the students' constitutional right to equal protection under the law.

Fees for summer school are charged in some districts of almost all states, said officials of both the National Organization on Legal Problems of Education and the American Educational Finance Association.

Those fees have never been challenged directly in court, the officials said.

The Circuit Court of Common Pleas in Beaufort County in 1980 ruled in the students' favor. In the ruling that overturned that decision, State Chief Justice J. Woodrow Lewis said the case "merits but brief consideration" because of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 decision in San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, which held that education is not a fundamental constitutional right.

The Supreme Court ruled in Rodriguez that the fact that poor citizens may have less access to education programs than others does not mean they have been denied their constitutional right to equal protection.

In a one-page opinion, Justice Lewis also said there is no state statute that guarantees a student year-round schooling. The state's school code guarantees free schooling for all students for 185 days per year.

But Roger Rice, a lawyer for the Center for Law and Education, said the distinction drawn by the court between the district's programs during the regular school year and those held during the summer might not be valid.

Because many summer programs affect how students are placed during the regular school year, Mr. Rice said, the concept that summer classes are not part of the overall educational program could put some students at a disadvantage. He said the increased use of tests to place students in academic programs would make the issue more pressing in coming years.

South Carolina established a basic-skills assessment test in 1978, but the state does not provide funds for compensatory education for all the students that score poorly on the tests. A $1.3-million pilot program for compensatory education will start this year.

"I'm afraid that this fits in with tracking and testing," Mr. Rice said. "The problem is that [charging summer fees might amount to] setting up a kind of dual system within the same building. Some students are fast-tracked because of what their parents can afford."

With the ruling, said Richard Whitaker, the lawyer for the students, the court has, in effect, approved public support for private schools, since the summer sessions for which tuition is charged take advantage of the public facilities.

John Cone, a lawyer for the South Carolina School Boards Association, said most districts in the state charge small fees for summer school because the state appropriates money to pay teachers' salaries only for the 185-day school year. Few districts have the funds to operate free schools, he said.

Mr. Cone also suggested that the plaintiffs should have brought their suit in a federal rather than a state court, since the main charge was a violation of 14th-Amendment rights.

Both students lost credit for the summer courses because they did not pay the fee. Both later dropped out of school.

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