The Indiana Supreme Court has struck down a school district’s $20 school activity fee as a violation of the state constitution because, the court said, it is equivalent to a tuition charge.
The 22,100-student Evansville-Vanderburgh school district imposed the fee on all K-12 students in the 2002-03 school year. The money was used to pay for nurses, school counselors, alternative education, and activities such as music, athletics, and drama, among other purposes. According to court papers, the fee was part of an attempt to balance the district’s budget, which had a $2.3 million deficit in 2002.
Some parents of students in the district, including some whose children qualify for federally subsidized school lunches, filed the suit in 2002.
The Indiana Constitution guarantees a public education “wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.”
“The mandatory fee [the district] imposed generally on all students, whether the student avails himself of a service or participates in a program of activity or not, becomes a charge for attending a public school and obtaining a public education,” Justice Robert D. Rucker wrote for the majority in the 4-1 decision on March 30.
Fran Quigley, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which represented the plaintiffs, said that even though the fee was small, “for some of our clients, it was a financial hardship.”
“Indiana’s constitution clearly states that tuition should be without charge, and it seemed clear to us and our clients that the type of fees that were being charged in Evansville fell into that category of tuition,” Mr Quigley said.
The state high court also held that for extracurricular activities, not considered part of a publicly funded education, “a reasonable fee may be assessed, but only against those students who participate in or take advantage of them.”
Tom Hutton, a staff lawyer with the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va., said that many districts charge fees for athletics or other extracurricular activities, but that the charge depends upon whether a student wishes to participate.
“The problem here [in the Indiana case] is everybody pays whether they participate or not,” he said.
The decision left some unanswered questions for Indiana school districts.
“I think we’re more confused now about what we can charge for than before [this case] went to trial,” said Julie M. Slavens, a staff lawyer with the Indiana School Boards Association. She said that because the ruling says school districts cannot charge for services related to the state-mandated curriculum, districts are faced with some funding dilemmas.
“We’re required to offer drivers’ ed,” Ms. Slavens said. “It’s mandated by the state board of education, so it should be provided for. Does that mean we can’t charge a reasonable fee for gas, oil, wear and tear on the cars now?”
Neither Mr. Hutton nor Ms. Slavens knew of any other districts across the country that had been imposing a mandatory activity fee on all students.
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Indiana Court Strikes Down Mandatory Fees