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Public School Fees Wear On Montgomery Parents

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 31, 2008

Public school is supposed to be free. But a student at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda can expect to pay $15 to take Advanced Placement biology, $40 for band class and $11 for a Spanish workbook.

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Lab fees, band fees, art fees and ill-defined "activity" fees are proliferating in cash-strapped public schools at a time when many families are watching their spending. This month, some Montgomery County parents mounted a campaign to challenge such fees in a dispute that might land in court.

Virginia has begun an effort to standardize rules for fees that vary from school to school. Last spring, an advocacy group for the poor reported that a Virginia mother of three borrowed against her car title to come up with $260 in school fees.

"Each school's fees are just whatever they feel like they can charge," said Louis Wilen, a Montgomery parent who is a leader in the fee debate. "The law says that schools are supposed to be free."

However, schools routinely charge students for goods and services and contend that the fees are permitted by state law. There are often fees for items such as workbooks, computer supplies, paintbrushes and gym suits. In addition, schools sometimes charge for use of lockers, musical instruments, football uniforms and parking spaces. Students who owe money may be excluded from graduation or be denied a report card.

Without fees, education officials say, schools might have to cut courses, swap acrylic paints for pencil and paper or send the band onto the field in T-shirts.

"The reality is that the money has to come from somewhere," said Brian Edwards, chief of staff to Montgomery schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

While Montgomery schools have drawn much of the backlash, fees are everywhere. The kind and amount vary by school and county.

Loudoun County charges for student parking and gym uniforms but not for art supplies, computer disks, workbooks, science lab materials or towels.

Calvert County allows high schools to charge 12 curricular fees. Among them: $20 for gym uniforms; $45 for shoes in the Dance for Athletes class; and a $20 lab fee in graphic arts. Most workbooks and lab materials are provided without charge.

Fairfax County allows schools to charge for musical instruments, parking, performing arts materials, towels and uniforms in occupational classes, but not for workbooks, traditional science labs or art classes.

Montgomery does not bar schools from charging any specific fee but guarantees that students will receive "content material required to meet course outcomes" and that they will not be penalized academically for inability to pay.


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