By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Last fall, the Montgomery County school system faced an unusually heated protest from parents over course fees, the sums charged by secondary schools for items such as art supplies and computer disks.
Now, in response, the school system has drafted 15 pages of regulations and memos on the subject, perhaps the most thorough treatment of fees by any school system in the Maryland suburbs.
Parents and school board members seemed mostly pleased by the directives issued last week by Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, which summarize the work of two groups empaneled last fall to answer parent concerns.
The Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County, the group that led the revolt against fees, celebrated the superintendent's announcement in a news release under the headline, "Returning Free Public Schools to Montgomery County." The group hailed the school system for acknowledging "the outrageous burden placed upon families" by fees, which can run to the hundreds of dollars for a family with more than one child in a middle or high school.
Both the Parents' Coalition and the superintendent predict other systems will follow Montgomery's lead. A quick survey of neighboring systems found at least one, Howard County public schools, that is revising its rules on fees this academic year.
Concern about school fees "was all over the country" at the start of this academic year, Weast said in an interview last week, "so I think it's something everybody was looking into."
Montgomery parents lodged several complaints against fees. The purist stance, taken by some, was that the law guarantees a free public education and that schools may not charge students for anything. A more widespread quibble: Fees seem inconsistent from school to school and seem to be multiplying because of budget constraints. Some schools charge more than others for the same item, in some cases charging more than the item's cost.
Weast said the new rules reduce fees by 70 percent at the high school level and 60 percent in middle schools. The changes ease the financial burden for parents but increase it for schools. Weast said he will shift $1.5 million to schools to cover lost fees.
Schools can no longer charge a fee for any item required for a course, with three general exceptions: food that students eat as part of a course; materials that go home with the student as a "product" at the end of class, such as an art project; and personal items that become the student's property, such as uniforms. Schools can charge no more than the actual cost of an item. Hardship waivers, already available, will be explained more clearly and will be easier to obtain.
The Montgomery school system also narrowed the items elementary schools can require in supply lists, an annual ritual in lower grades. Parents no longer can be asked to supply glue sticks for an entire class, although they can be asked to supply items for a student's personal use. Other past supply-list staples, such as baby wipes and tissues, can be sought only as donations.
Weast released the guidelines as a more-or-less finished product. But school board members have indicated that they would like to tweak the rules before they take effect in the 2009-10 academic year.
"It's a good start. But this is going to be a very complicated issue," said board member Christopher S. Barclay (Silver Spring). He said he is chiefly concerned about equity. For example, some schools may elect to cancel a computer science course rather than cover the costs of the associated hardware. Performing groups in affluent areas may turn to parent boosters for new uniforms rather than wait the 12 years set in the proposed replacement schedule.
Whatever the limitations of Montgomery's new fee schedule, it is far more elaborate than the rules posted in other Maryland school systems.
The Anne Arundel County school system addresses fees with a few sentences in school board policy. One passage states that all instructional materials "required by the course of study and not becoming the personal property of the student" will be provided at no charge. Another passage notes that students can be asked to purchase course materials, provided the requests are "moderate," approved by the principal and do not pose a hardship. Lab fees are forbidden.
St. Mary's County school rules say students can be charged "modest fees, not to exceed actual cost," for some course materials, with a waiver for students who cannot afford them. Required workbooks and lab manuals must be provided at no charge. Students can elect to buy books if they want to keep them. A separate publication, the student handbook, states that students will be asked to buy materials for projects they will take home.
Other school systems make little or no mention of course fees in their school board policies or student handbooks.
Howard schools are updating their rules on fees and supply lists, with a tentative deadline of March.
"We plan to have uniform school supply lists and guidelines for fees in place for the next school year," said Patti Caplan, a school system spokeswoman.
The Prince George's County school system did not appear to have fee rules on its Web site, and a spokesman could not be reached for comment.