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No more school textbook bills for Indiana parents — but what other fees can still be charged?

Photo caption: The House GOP budget bars public schools from charging textbook fees but leaves schools to foot the bill instead. (Photo from the U.S. Department of Education Flickr)

Some parents are raising eyebrows at new school fees, but officials say they’re needed – and far lower than before.

Hoosier parents are no longer on the hook for textbook costs, but many are seeing bills for other fees increasingly being charged by schools.

State lawmakers dedicated $160 million in the new state budget to eliminate textbook and curriculum fees, starting with the 2023-24 academic year.

While the new law was championed by state officials, school districts are left trying to figure out what they have to cover and what they don’t — especially when it comes to advanced classes and career development courses.

There’s no consensus yet for what types of fees are still being charged by individual Indiana schools and districts. Some contacted by the Indiana Capital Chronicle said they had totally eliminated all education-related fees — at least for the current school year.

Other district officials said they interpreted the new curriculum law differently and will continue to bill parents for certain college-level course materials and school management software like Skyward.

“I guess I just thought my family wasn’t going to have to pay anything this year,” said Michele Todd, whose three kids attend Carmel Clay Schools, just north of Indianapolis. Todd said school fees for each of her three kids totaled between $150 and $250 last year. She owes less than $30 for each of her students this year, mostly for art supplies in her elementary schooler’s class, and science lab materials in her high school-aged kids’ courses.

“Don’t get me wrong … we’re only being charged a fraction of what we were before,” Todd continued. “But it’s almost a matter of principle … aren’t our fees supposed to be zeroed out?”

What schools can still charge parents

In recent academic years, annual textbook fees for a single Hoosier student averaged from $80 to $200. The amount billed varied significantly, however, depending on a student’s grade level and what district they attended.

Fees at some schools escalated into the hundreds of dollars per student as course materials transitioned from traditional books to technology-centered resources like iPads and Chromebook tablets, for example. On top of that, many families continue to dish out additional dollars for school supplies, calculators, sports fees and band rentals.

The $160 million budget allocation for “curricular materials” by the 2023 General Assembly has since shifted the responsibility for paying the fees to the state. Taxpayer dollars already cover the cost of textbooks for students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

The law itself is somewhat vague, though, saying public schools must “provide curricular materials to students at no cost,” but that parents can be charged “a reasonable fee for lost or significantly damaged curricular materials.”

In May, the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) issued guidance to local school officials about what counts as “curriculum materials.”

There are still a lot of wrinkles to iron out on the whole thing. And it’s still in flux — determining, do we want to charge anything? If we feel like we can, like we’re allowed to, we’re also asking, do we want to?

– Travis Hueston, Eastern Howard School Corporation business manager

The department defines those as “books; hardware that will be consumed, accessed, or used by a single student during a semester or school year; computer software; and digital content.”

That includes one-to-one laptops or tablets given to students in some districts. Materials for advanced placement, dual credit, and career technical education courses — but not dual enrollment courses — also count as curricular materials, according to IDOE.

But schools are still allowed to charge families non-curricular fees and for other odds and ends, and for lost or damaged items. Parents in some districts are additionally offered the option to pay for insurance that covers technology used by their students. School districts cannot require parents to pay for that insurance, however.

Even so, IDOE’s guidance instructs districts to consult their own legal council about their ability to charge “other fees.”

In the Eastern Howard School Corporation, each student in grades 1-12 will be charged $36.80 “to cover the costs of non-curricular expenses that the corporation has absorbed in the past,” according to the district.

District business manager Travis Hueston said that includes costs for Skyward — an online school management software — and Skylert, which allows the district to send notifications to students and families about delays, closures and other information. Hueston said Eastern Howard’s financial officers divided the cost of those services by the estimated number of students enrolled in the district to determine how much each child and their family should be charged.

“It’s still a mystery to most of us, I believe,” Hueston said about the rollout of the new law and determining what can and can’t be billed to families. “In my opinion, there are still a lot of wrinkles to iron out on the whole thing. And it’s still in flux — determining, do we want to charge anything? If we feel like we can, like we’re allowed to, we’re also asking, do we want to?”

The nearby Northwestern School Corporation said it will charge $48.31 per student in grades K-6, and $41.77 for each student in grades 7-12, to cover “communication services.” A fee breakdown provided by the district shows charges of $14.46 for Skyward and $6.07 for Synovia, as well as similar fees for Google Classroom and other services.

“Schools will be allotted a limited reimbursement from the state regardless of the cost to the school. Unfortunately, these additional costs to the school budget will be withdrawn from the education fund, which is the fund that we use to pay our staff,” the district said on its website.

The communication services fees are intended to “bridge the gap, limit the withdrawal from the education fund, and maintain our systems of communication services,” including for busing notifications, school cancellations and delays, and access to student management documents and grades.

North Harrison Community Schools said all students will receive free textbooks, workbooks and Chromebooks, starting this school year. But fees will continue to be charged for student planners, STEM materials and elective classes.

The Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation said anything used in the classroom — such as books and software to access curricular materials online — is now covered and won’t be charged to families. Previously, school fees for those materials ranged from $150 dollars to more than $300 per student.

Still, the district said it reserves the right to charge for certain non-curricular and optional activities.

Officials in other districts, including Elkhart Community Schools, said schools will continue to have recommended school supply lists, but that those items won’t be required by teachers.

Other fees permitted under state law

Preschools and non-public schools can continue to charge tuition and fees, including curricular materials charges.

Indiana Code continues to allow schools to seek out unpaid curricular material fees assessed prior to July 1. If those earlier bills aren’t paid, they could be sent collections.

But schools are prohibited from withholding curricular materials and supplies or denying a student “any benefit or privilege” because they have failed to pay a required fee. That includes withholding a student’s diploma or refusing to allow them to participate in extracurriculars, according to IDOE.

Terry Spradlin of the Indiana School Boards Association said more guidance will likely be needed from state officials, too, for figure out who’s responsible for expenses associated with parking passes, student identification cards and co-curricular programs.

Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner told the Indiana Capital Chronicle the state education department is now collecting data from school districts statewide to better understand what fees they still charge.

“Anytime you implement, you always learn,” Jenner said. “I think that data is going to give us a look into what we’re investing in curriculum materials in our different schools … this is really going to give us a good look that we’ve needed for a long time in our state.”

“We’ll be very open and transparent about what we find,” Jenner continued. “And then the General Assembly will have to make some decisions in terms of if anything needs clarification in the law — and then also in front of a budget session in 2025, deciding what the investment might look like in the future.”

Is state funding enough to cover textbooks?

Although parents are paying less, questions remain about whether legislators set aside enough money to make up the costs.

Under the new process, schools will send their curricular expenses to the state’s education department. Officials there will then take the total and divide it by the number of students statewide. That will give an amount per student that will be multiplied by how many students each district has. Then, that amount will be given in one lump sum to individual school districts in December.

Lawmakers appropriated $160 million for the initiative’s inaugural year, based on an estimate of $150 per student for the state’s 1 million pupils.

Hueston said Eastern Howard schools — even with the $36 fee — is expected to fall short by $50,000 to $60,000 this school year.

“Parents don’t have to pay for the curricular materials, but they aren’t free,” Hueston said. “We still have to cover these costs somehow.”

Hamilton Heights School Corporation and Greenfield-Central’s superintendents said the money schools will receive won’t be enough to cover their full costs. The same concerns persist in the Community School Corporation of Southern Hancock County, which said it will have a shortfall of about $800,000.

Officials with New Albany-Floyd County schools said the amount schools expect to be paid for students in elementary and middle schools should be enough, but that might not be the case for high schools, where curricular fees tend to be more expensive, especially for Advanced Placement and dual credit courses. Half a dozen other district representatives contacted by the Indiana Capital Chronicle echoed the same concern.

Excess dollars from the lower grades could be used to pay for secondary school courses, but schools may also need to turn to their education funds to cover shortages.

That puts some schools in an even greater bind, given that general funds are used to cover most operational and personnel costs.

“I am so thankful that our governor and General Assembly leaned in and supported that we would no longer charge for curriculum materials … to remove that charge is key,” Jenner told the Indiana Capital Chronicle, noting that before, Indiana was one of only seven states to charge families for textbooks.

“Where I have heard from some superintendents who said, ‘Hey, I’m going to be short,’ I’ve heard from other superintendents who said, ‘This is more than I need.’ And a lot of times, the ‘more than I need’ is from our schools that have been in poverty, because they didn’t have the level of resources that some of our affluent schools did,” she added. “This is something we’re still going to look at.”

This article originally appeared on Indiana Capital Chronicle.

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