The Truth On School Fees

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Facebook poster recently stated that every high school teacher he talked to hated Rhonda Thurman because she tells parents they cannot be forced to pay student fees. I certainly hope this ”poster” did not talk to all high school teachers because I am quite sure at least one of them does not hate me. 

In order for all parents (including the “poster”), teachers and administrators to understand why I choose to tell parents the truth about student fees, I will share a few facts. 

In 2003 the Tennessee Attorney General was asked by a Hamilton County parent to give an opinion on whether a school could hold her daughter’s report card because she (the parent) had not paid a $5 math, $5 lab fee, and a $5 comp. fee. This parent was furious that her senior high school daughter was humiliated in front of classmates when she was given a hot pink piece of paper with “THIS IS A HOLD NOTICE” written across the top in lieu of a report card. Life was already hard enough for this student being one of three children being raised by a single mom who was owed over $40,000 in back child support. Then, for her to be embarrassed in front of her peers by an adult was more than this parent could take. So, she sought remedy from the state of Tennessee. 

On March 14, 2003, the Tennessee Attorney General Paul G. Summers rendered his opinion to her question on whether the school could hold her daughter’s report card for unpaid classroom fees. This was the response she received:  

“School systems may request but not require payment of ‘school fees.' Thus failure to pay the requested fee cannot be a debt because it is not owed.

“…school boards may request but may not enforce school fees, (3) a statute prohibiting schools from imposing unauthorized student fees and any fee that is a condition to attending public school or for using school equipment as part of educational training.

“In this instance, the fees assessed for instructional materials and other classroom supplies fall under the State Board’s list of 'school fees' and thus may be requested but not required. The assessment of such fees would not create a 'debt' or legal obligation to pay them and accordingly failure to pay could not be used as a basis for withholding student documents.

“In summary, a school may request payment of the 'school fees' listed in rule 0520-1-3-.03(14) (c). It may require payment of items that are not school fees. Failure to pay a requested school fee would not constitute grounds for withholding student documents. Failure to pay required non-“school fee” charge would provide such grounds, however, because such charges do create a “debt” owed by the student to whom they are charged. Finally, under no circumstances may a school require any fee, fine or monetary charge as a condition to attending public school or for using school equipment while receiving educational training.”

Another document sent to HCDE Finance Department by State of Tennessee Department of Education on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2001 states: 

“Please find following a copy of the Tennessee State Statute that states that public schools are free to residents over five years old in Tennessee. School fees of any type may be requested, payment of such fees is at the option of the parents. Such fees are the equivalent of a fundraiser."

I have also included a copy from the Tennessee Internal School Accounting Policy Manuel that repeats the phrase from the statute and continues to address student activity money (which a school fee would become, once paid). Both the comptroller’s office and the State Department of Education are in agreement that student participation in any type of fundraising is strictly optional. No penalties may be placed upon students who do not wish to participate (such as withholding grades or records), and no privileges may be given to students who choose to participate.

And finally, the Tennessee Constitution, Article XI, Section 12-“ The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a free public education.” 

Section 9-6-3001 TCA- “The public schools shall be free to all persons above the age of five…” 

So anger toward me about student fees is misplaced. The anger should be toward the state attorney general, the Tennessee Department of Education and the Tennessee Constitution. I must say this is the first time I have ever known of a politician being hated for telling the truth.

By making HCDE teachers and administrators aware of the law, I am trying to keep them from the same mistake that other school systems across the nation have made. For instance, reported on Nov. 8, 2001, “A parent in the Claremont Unified School District sued the district for charging illegal fees as well as the return of the last three years of such fees. A similar lawsuit brought against Pasadena schools has resulted in a proposed settlement in which the district has agreed to refund over $227,000 in fees which violate the ‘free education’ clause of California’s constitution.”

Another case is a lawsuit filed by the United States Justice Foundation, who has sued several districts across California including Escondido Union High School, to challenge student fees. Gary Kreep, the founder of the foundation, said student fees violate the US Constitution. He went on to say’ “This is a matter of double taxation. The parents are paying taxes, and they’re essentially being hit by a second round of taxes by the school system.” 

As I stated earlier, the Constitution of the State of Tennessee has the same “free education” clause in it. So, any lawsuit brought against HCDE on behalf of parents who have been told they are required to pay fees or their children will be punished or embarrassed will have the same results as other similar lawsuits across the nation. 

I am not telling parents not to pay student fees. I am simply telling them what Tennessee law states. I tell parents their children cannot be humiliated or punished in any way (including being taken out of a class and put into another one), for non-payment of fees. Also, students who pay fees cannot be given any kind of reward, whether it is awarding them an upper locker, adding points on their grade or any of the other things I have heard over the years. 

I am continually being told that the schools need the money and I should not tell parents they do not have to pay. The schools may need the money but, the reason for that lies with the School Board and the state of Tennessee BEP formula. I have seen the burden on parents for school fees get increasing worse over the last 12 years. Every year at budget time I have asked for a review of programs HCDE funds to see which ones are working and which ones do not so the Board can shift the money used for ineffective programs back into the classroom. Instead, programs are never discontinued and more programs and positions have been added. The BEP formula used by the state to allocate money also continues to punish large school systems like Hamilton County.  

But, no matter how much money schools need or who is to blame, it is not the student’s fault. They should not be embarrassed in front of classmates for something they have no control over. It also concerns me that teachers are now being asked to be debt collectors. That is not their job.

I have given my reason for telling parents that fees can be requested but not required. I also tell parents who think all students should be forced to pay fees that they are not bound by the amount their school requests; they are free to give more. Businesses and individuals ask what they can do to help the school system. Why not pick a school, a grade level or a teacher and offer to pay fees for those who do not? 

As an elected official I have taken an oath to uphold the Tennessee Constitution. So now, I will ask, given all of the facts, when someone asks you, “Can the school force me to pay student fees by punishing my child?” What will you tell them? Will you tell them the truth? The choice is yours. I have already made mine. 

Rhonda Thurman 

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