First, it was activities. Now, it’s kindergarten.
A recent Indiana Supreme Court ruling means that charging fees for all-day kindergarten is unconstitutional, the state department of education has warned school districts.
On March 30, the court ruled that the Evansville-Vanderburgh school district could not charge a $20 activity fee to all students because it was equivalent to a tuition charge for public education, a practice forbidden under the Indiana Constitution. According to the ruling, districts can charge only for activities that students elect to take part in. (“Indiana Court Strikes Down Mandatory Fees,” April 12, 2006)
Following the precedent set in the Evansville ruling, “a publicly funded school cannot assess a tuition charge for attendance in a full-day kindergarten,” Kevin C. McDowell, the general counsel for the education department, wrote in a May 1 memo to school districts.
Indiana mandates that kindergarten be made available, but according to the memo, the state law has never specified whether those programs should be half- or full-day. Therefore, according to Mr. McDowell, schools cannot charge for full-day instruction because there is no mandated length for kindergartners’ school day.
Mr. McDowell’s memo is not the only interpretation of the ruling.
“There could be an argument that full-day kindergarten is an expansion of the curriculum,” said Julie M. Slavens, a staff lawyer for the Indiana School Boards Association. In that case, she argued, districts would be able to charge for the longer instruction because families choose to attend.
According to Ms. Slavens, many districts are planning to continue administering the charge—between $5 and $10 per day for some—under that argument.
“Does that mean they’re not going to get sued? No,” she said. “They understand that’s a risk. … I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime next year there’s a trial court looking at this issue.”
Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, has said he will make statewide full-day kindergarten a priority for the 2007 legislature.“Our goal is to see that schools can continue providing full-day kindergarten, while helping them do so in accordance with the supreme court’s recent ruling,” state schools Superintendent Suellen K. Reed said in a statement. “In addition, we are committed to working with legislators and the governor this upcoming session to pass full-day kindergarten.”