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Trend Toward User Fees for School Services Draws Fire

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School systems are permitted to charge student user fees in 34 states, and, in nearly half those states, such fees are commonly assessed for such academic materials as workbooks and textbooks, a new survey has found.

The practice, Roger W. Hamm and Sandra Crosser write in an article on their survey in this month's American School Board Journal, undermines a concept at the heart of the American school system: the notion of a free public education.

"Even in difficult economic circumstances, school systems should not impose additional school fees because of the potential to diminish equal access to education, students' self-worth, and equity among taxpayers," write the authors, both of Ohio Northern University. Mr. Hamm is an education professor at the university; Ms. Crosser is an assistant professor of education.

Growing numbers of school districts are exploring the practice, which the authors say is regressive, as they look for ways to cope with recessionary budget pressures. In a number of communities, school activities once considered part and parcel of a public-school education are being funded with user fees. (See Education Week, Dec. 7, 1988.)

Supporters of the idea contend that the fees are more acceptable to the public than general tax increases because only those who use the fee-subsidized services pay for them. Without the fees, some school officials say, they would be forced to eliminate entire extracurricular or enrichment programs.

In their survey, however, Mr. Hamm and Ms. Crosser found that fees are being used for a wide variety of purposes--some relating directly to schools' core academic programs.

In the 34 states that permit fees, the survey found, the most commonly assessed charges are for damages to textbooks and equipment. Some 30 states allow fees for damages to textbooks, while 29 permit charges for equipment, it found.

The survey also found that:

Twenty-three states permit schools to charge students to particiel10lpate in clubs and 21 permit "pay to play" athletic programs.

In 20 states, schools are permitted to charge for laboratory experiments and field trips.

Fifteen states permit schools to charge students for workbooks in 15 states, and 11 allow fees for pencils and paper.

Eight states--Alaska, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Utah, and Wisconsin--allow school boards to assess fees for required textbooks.

Although a majority of states permit schools to charge fees of some kind, state education agencies told the researchers that most school systems in their states do not commonly levy them for academic materials.

That practice is common, howev4er, in 15 states, according to the researchers. They are: Alaska, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin.

"It might be only coincidence, but many of the same states tend to spend less money on their students than the national average," the researchers write. "In national rankings based on per-pupil expenditures ... 67 percent of the states that do allow fees were in the bottom half of per-pupil expenditures; 40 percent were in the bottom quarter; and only 2 percent were in the top quarter."

"We believe school boards that charge student fees should consider repealing them--and should instead search for more equitable and progressive ways to finance public education," the authors conclude.

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