Keep the pressure on charter schools

Published Sept. 12, 2013

The Hillsborough County School District should continue to monitor charter schools for the fees and other charges they are passing along to students. Parents at some charters have complained that they are being asked to pay for routine classroom expenses. These pass-through charges are inappropriate, and the district needs to call out those charters that take advantage of a gray area in the law.

The district fired a well-deserved shot over the bow last month during the School Board's discussion over whether to renew the charter for the Trinity School for Children. The district used the opportunity to underscore that charters cannot charge for their services or squeeze parents for donations or volunteer hours. As recipient of state money, charter schools are not supposed to be charging their students what amounts to tuition. While students might be asked to pay for some materials and for extras such as field trips, charters are to provide the same essentials as the traditional public schools, and students cannot be treated differently for an inability to pay.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia has had to send the message several times this year. Officials have looked at several charters where parents said they were asked to pay "enhancement" fees, or where parents said they paid money in lieu of serving as volunteers. District attorney Tom Gonzalez warned that the line between an enhancement fee and tuition could be hazy, and he noted that many charters were pushing the line to generate as much income as possible. The state Department of Education issued a legal opinion in May that bans the practice of paying money to satisfy requirements for volunteer hours. Elia sent a letter to all parents of charter school pupils in June informing them that they cannot be placed under duress to pay.

The district has performed a public service by standing up to the charters. With more than 13,000 students in the district in charter schools, and with enrollment growing, this is a significant population, and these families should not be milked as cash cows just because opportunity exists. The district should keep monitoring these practices, alert parents when necessary and hold the charters accountable when they cross the line.