When is a free public education not free?
In recent weeks, we've learned of several proposals by Florida school districts seeking to keep programs feasible by charging fees for services. Among them:
Pasco and Hernando officials floated the concept of a fee to participate in dual enrollment courses.
Brevard officials discussed charging fees for students to ride the bus to and from extracurricular events.
Brevard officials suggested charging fees for families to apply for school choice.
The idea of pay-to-participate is nothing new. Hernando and Pasco schools, for instance, charge students to play on athletic teams. Duval students pay for bus rides to magnet schools, although a private contractor provides the transportation.
But some of the services being considered for extra charges, such as dual enrollment and school choice, are provisions in state law for all eligible students. And the Florida constitution is clear that the state's education system will be free:
"The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education and for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of institutions of higher learning and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require."
What if a family can't afford to pay to apply for school choice? Or for dual enrollment? Or for a bus ride? Where does that leave them in a system that is supposed to provide all an equal opportunity for public education?
But by the same token, would the system be better served by ending services altogether because districts cannot afford to offer them?
In California, there have been lawsuits over school districts charging school fees despite that state's constitutional promise of a free K-12 education. Is there a right answer to strike the balance between free and fees?