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Vote on Charging Students for Summer School Delayed by R.I. State Board

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The Rhode Island Board of Education has delayed a decision on whether it's legal for a school district to charge students to attend summer school.

In a March ruling, state education Commissioner Deborah Gist denied a parent's request to be reimbursed for the $700 she paid to the Cumberland school district so her child could attend summer school. The high school student needed to make up credits in order to avoid having to repeat a grade.

An appeals committee of the Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, which is part of the state board of education, upheld Gist's ruling in July.

Critics argued that Gist's decision is unlawful, retreats from 150 years of precedent, and could undermine school equity for low-income students who can't afford the fees.

Gist's opinion "could have a truly devastating impact on low-income children throughout the state and undermine the fundamental principle of the guarantee of a free public education in Rhode Island," wrote the ACLU of Rhode Island and the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island in a joint letter to civil rights organizations earlier this month.

Steven Brown, the executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, said in an email that he's also received complaints from parents about summer school fees in the Woonsocket school district.  Last summer, according to the Woonsocket district website, summer school classes were $150 each for residents and $170 for non-residents.

When asked how many other Rhode Island districts charge for summer school, Elliot Krieger, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Education, said he didn't have that information.

The ACLU/Mental Health Association letter also argues that Gist's ruling misinterprets an 1868 act of the Rhode Island legislature that prohibited schools from charging for student services.  

"For decades," they write, "Commissioners of Education have upheld the Legislature's clearly stated intent, invalidating attempts to levy fees on student programming as varied as night classes, after-school activities, interscholastic sports, and Advanced Placement classes."

'Optional' Programs

As recently as August 2009, Gist herself cited previous decisions when she rejected a request by the Rhode Island Interscholastic League to charge students to participate in high school sports.

In explaining that ruling, Gist wrote: "Finally it may be observed that research has shown that school fees discourage participation in school activities, adversely affect school attendance, and put stress on students and their parents and siblings. A school fee set at a high enough level to make a serious contribution to a school budget is a fee that will be too high for many parents to pay."

In the Cumberland situation, however, Gist said that since summer school isn't mandatory and Cumberland doesn't receive state funding for summer classes, the district has a right to ask families to pay for the program. 

"The summer program is at the discretion of the Cumberland School Committee and outside the scope of the regular school year, and is not subject to the standards and requirements of [Rhode Island's Basic Education Plan], wrote Gist. "Whether to charge a fee for such optional programs is for the Cumberland School Committee to decide."

She added that by prohibiting Cumberland from charging, the district might be forced to discontinue summer school, and that could violate state education law.

But at their meeting on Monday evening, council members unanimously voted to table the issue until next month. Krieger said the board members wanted more time to review all of the papers filed at the original hearing before deciding whether to uphold or reverse the commissioner's decision.

The ACLU's Brown said he's pleased that the board is taking a closer look at the pros and cons. In his testimony on Monday, which he emailed to Education Week, Brown told board members: "This may be one of the most momentous decisions that the council makes about the entitlement of all students to a free public education."

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