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Charter Schools That Charge Illegal Fees. How Pervasive Is the Problem?

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UPDATED/CORRECTED

Some Houston charter schools belonging to the nation's largest charter network have been accused of charging parents fees in violation of state code. 

That's according to findings from an investigation last year by the Texas Education Agency and reporting by the Houston Chronicle.

Charging families fees to pay for things such as athletics or field trips is nothing new—many public schools do it, both district and charter.

Where a few KIPP schools in Houston have come under scrutiny is for charging fees for essentials such as books and science materials and obscuring the fact that these fees were optional. Parents tell the Houston Chronicle that they paid thousands in fees they thought were mandatory. 

Adding fuel to the controversy is that educating low-income students and getting them into college is at the heart of KIPP's mission. Charter school opponents were quick to jump on the story.

So, is this a one-off case or one example of a larger, national issue of charter schools charging impermissible fees? I can't answer that question definitively (at least not anytime soon), but I can share what one of Education Week's crack librarians found in a search of news articles on this topic: Seven cases over the past five years of charter schools raising eyebrows for charging—or planning to charge—fees.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  • In 2013, following complaints from parents, a Florida superintendent sent out a districtwide letter telling parents that they should never be compelled to pay fees at their children's charter schools. The Tampa Bay Times article details a case where the Hillsborough County school board sent a list of recommendations to a charter school saying that school officials shouldn't pressure parents to give money, use invoices to solicit donations, or punish students if their parents didn't volunteer enough hours at the school. Full story from the Tampa Bay Times
  • An Arizona-based charter school chain that wanted to open a campus in Nashville, Tenn., elicited skepticism from local education officials over the more than $1,000 it charges families in fees, according to a 2012 article from The Tennessean. Great Hearts Academies' application to open a charter school was denied multiple times by the Metro Nashville school board because the board was unconvinced the charter network was interested in serving students outside a predominately white and wealthy area of the city. (Sorry, no link available.)
  • In 2015, the ACLU of Delaware filed a complaint saying charter school policies—such as charging more than $200 in activity fees—were discouraging low-income students from applying and re-segregating public schools. Although this isn't strictly an example of impermissible fees, it's an interesting example of how even legal fees could create a barrier to enrollment. Read the full story from the Cape Gazette here.
  • In 2013, the state of Illinois told a charter school in Pingree Grove, a growing community about 50 miles west of Chicago, that it had to clarify that membership fees were not mandatory, which many parents believed they were. More from the Daily Herald
  • Also in 2013, and also in Texas, the Texas Education Agency found another charter school that aims to serve low-income families was charging parents a fee of up to $200 to reserve their children's spots in the school. Although fees are allowed, they can't be tied to registration. Details from the Houston Chronicle.
  • In 2015, a California charter school was caught charging international students $15,000 in tuition to attend the school. The Marin Independent Journal has the full story
  • Finally, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization in California alleged that charter schools that required parents to volunteer at the school amounted to an illegal non-monetary fee. Details here from yours truly.

So what happened to the KIPP schools in Houston? The Houston Chronicle reports that the Texas Education Agency assigned a monitor to keep an eye on the schools, and KIPP Houston has since created uniform paperwork that makes it clear these fees are optional.

"The policy was correct in the handbook. It was communicated wrong in a letter sent to parents for one school," said KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini, addressing the findings of the Texas Education Agency investigation. "The fees for that school during that school year were $300 per kid for 500 kids."

Mancini said KIPP doesn't know how many parents were confused about the policy because all parents are required to sign a statement saying they had read the handbook.

KIPP was not sanctioned by the state, and the network does not have plans to reimburse parents for the fees they paid.

Correction: The original blog post conflated the findings of the Texas Education Agency investigation and reporting by the Houston Chronicle. The story has been corrected and updated to include a quote from KIPP spokesman, Steve Mancini. 

Education Week Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this story. 

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