Questions have arisen in two large Florida school districts about the fees some charter schools are charging parents, putting a bigger spotlight on a gray area involving charters in Florida and beyond.
Last month, the 200,000-student Hillsborough County School District sent letters to 11,170 charter school families, telling them fees at some schools might be against the law, and that charters can’t kick out children whose parents don’t pay up. In May, meanwhile, the state Department of Education issued an opinion to the 41,000 Lake County district, saying charter schools cannot allow parents to pay a fee in lieu of volunteer hours.
Charter schools are publicly funded and open to students regardless of income. Many charge fees in the same way district schools do – for lab supplies or band equipment, for example. But some also ask for voluntary donations that may make parents feel pressured to contribute, and could raise questions about access.
Florida isn’t the only place where such fees have come under scrutiny.
A recent Reuters story highlighted several examples. In Illinois, families at Cambridge Lakes Charter School pay registration fees of $210 to $225 per student and invest in the company that built the school or risk losing their kid’s seat. At a minimum, families must invest $120 a year, the story said, or pay $5,000 for a “lifetime stake.” In California, the Pacific Collegiate School asks parents for a voluntary $3,000 donation. In Arizona, most charters in the Great Hearts Academy networks ask parents for a voluntary $1,500.
In Florida, it’s not clear how many charter schools charge fees, and for what purpose, or for how much. No one tracks the fees.
Mike Kooi, the departing executive director of DOE’s Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, said there is a point where the fees would become inappropriate. “Any fee that becomes a condition on acceptance into any school, charter or non-charter,” he said, “would be problematic in my opinion.’’
Charters are allowed to ask for donations. And in part because they don’t receive as much state and federal funding as traditional public schools, many do.
Some charters call the donation an “enhancement’’ fee or “membership’’ fee, suggesting parents contribute a set amount per student per year to help pay for, say, new computers and other equipment. Others charge “consumable’’ fees, much like traditional or magnet public schools, which might cover labs, activities, supplies and other needs.
In both Florida districts, questions about a fee in lieu of volunteer hours also cropped up.
Carol MacLeod, chief financial officer for the Lake County School District, said it asked DOE for an opinion after neither a parent nor a charter believed the district when it told them such fees were not allowed. The DOE general counsel noted charter schools can deny admission to children whose parents don’t fulfill those hours. But they can’t accept donations to satisfy all or part of that volunteer commitment because it “no longer furthers the stated mission of parental involvement.’’
Hillsborough, which has a reputation as a charter-friendly district, contends some charter fees are excessive and resemble tuition or registration fees – something public schools cannot charge. The fees also can get sticky, said Jenna Hodgens, who oversees the district’s charters, if parents feel pressured to pay them out of fear of losing their child’s spot in the school.
“By law, these fees are not and cannot be required as a precondition to attendance at a public school,’’ Superintendent MaryEllen Elia told parents in her letter.
Officials with the Florida Charter School Alliance and Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools could not be reached for comment.
There really aren’t any state or national guidelines on fees for charter schools to follow, said Kristine Bennett, president of a charter association in Hillsborough and principal of Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School. “It really is a site-based decision,’’ she said.
Bennett suggested schools have a plan in place for students who can’t pay. But parents must be cognizant that some specialized programs, like dance or art, will have additional costs and expectations.
Elia’s letter asked parents at the more than 40 charter schools within district boundaries to report their concerns. So far, 44 parents from nine charters have called the district. Nearly half were concerned about the payment of fees in lieu of volunteer hours; the rest, were about enhancement and consumable fees.
The district had already flagged two of the nine charters for what it deemed questionable fees.
It sent LLT Academy in Tampa a letter April 30 calling the school’s consumable fees “excessive’’ and informing the charter it would not be renewed unless it addressed that matter and other deficiencies. Hodgens said she heard from two parents – one who reported paying $160 and another who paid $255. The district has asked LLT to provide a description of fees and proof they are appropriate. Officials at LLT did not respond to a request for comment from redefinED.
A similar letter went to Kids Community College elementary and middle schools in Riverview, with the district noting other concerns beyond fees. The district said it received documentation from parents for a $500 enhancement donation that resembled an invoice.
Ken Scarborough, KCC’s board president, said the donations are voluntary and parents are asked to contribute what they can at the beginning of the school year. Those who sign on for the commitment, which may include a payment plan, are sent a statement. No family is denied acceptance or re-enrollment for not contributing, he said.
The district said it will require KCC to provide proof of the appropriateness of each of its fees, as well as a policy outlining charges and consequences for nonpayment.
Hodgens said the district plans to make a list of complaints for charter operators to address. It may also present the findings to the state DOE for review.
Editor’s note: Eric Paisner, vice president of knowledge and partnerships for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, responded to our request for information about charter school fees after our story posted: ”We don’t know whether this is an issue nationwide, or how much this is happening. In our Model Law, we specify that charters schools should only charge such fees as may be imposed on other public schools in the state.” Check out the Model Law at www.publiccharters.org/law