Indiana Officials Seek Additional Information on School Fees Charged to Families

Indiana’s K-12 schools are spending more on student textbooks than anticipated by state leaders, and some schools are still charging families. Lawmakers are now requesting more information on the expenses.

This inquiry comes one year after the General Assembly allocated $160 million in the current state budget to eliminate textbook and curriculum fees for Hoosier families by the 2023-24 academic year.

In May 2023, the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) estimated that schools would be reimbursed approximately $151.88 per student based on available funds. However, the actual reimbursement amount for the current academic year turned out to be $158.21 per student.

Despite this, data from the IDOE obtained by the Indiana Capital Chronicle reveals that a total of about $159 million was reimbursed to 395 traditional K-12 districts and charter schools for the current academic year, which is approximately $1 million less than the allocated amount.

However, it remains unclear how much each school spent on textbooks and other materials, as well as the amount requested by individual districts for reimbursement from the state.

According to Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner, IDOE “provided some schools with more than they requested,” while other schools significantly increased their requests.

After reviewing the reimbursement numbers, Jenner emphasized the need for state officials to gain a better understanding of their expenditures and make more efficient decisions regarding curricular materials in the future.

She also highlighted the need for further investigation into other fees that schools still charge parents, such as fees for certain college-level course materials and school management software.

“We need a better understanding of what we’re charging for,” Jenner stated. She added that a detailed analysis of longitudinal curricular materials spending data is also underway to ensure transparency and awareness of any additional fees not covered by the state.

Indiana Education Secretary Katie Jenner speaks at the Dentons Legislative Conference on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

In line with this, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb has included a statewide review of curricular materials expenses in his 2024 agenda, following the state’s commitment to cover textbook fees in K-12 schools.

According to House Bill 1243, all public schools in Indiana must participate in an annual statewide survey of school fees charged to students or parents. Completion of the survey is a requirement for districts to receive a distribution from the statewide curricular materials fund.

Regarding the issue, the governor stated, “It’s so important to be very transparent about costs. And so this is what (the state education department) is working on — making sure that they’re working with schools, and then reporting out, so parents know when it comes to the curriculum that they’re not paying twice.”

Indiana tax dollars footing the bill

Indiana used to be among seven states that allowed districts to charge parents for textbooks until the current school year.

In recent academic years, textbook fees for a single student in Indiana ranged from $80 to $200. However, the amount varied depending on the grade level and district.

For some schools, fees reached several hundred dollars per student as traditional books were replaced with technology-centered resources like iPads and Chromebook tablets. Families also had additional expenses for school supplies, calculators, sports fees, and band rentals.

Governor Holcomb’s agenda for 2023 called for the legislature to eliminate curricular fees and provide all students with necessary materials at no cost. Taxpayer dollars already covered the cost of textbooks for students who qualified for free and reduced-price meals.

As part of the new process, schools submit their curricular expenses to the IDOE, which then determines the amount per student based on the statewide total. This amount is then multiplied by the number of students in each district, and the sum is distributed to individual school districts.

Although the new law was supported by state officials, school districts have been grappling with determining which expenses they are responsible for covering, particularly for advanced classes and career development courses.

District administrators have stated that families have been charged additional fees for a long time, and such billing is still permitted by law.

As part of their 2024 agenda, the Indiana State Teachers Association has urged the legislature to allocate more funding in the second year of the biennium to fully cover the cost of textbooks and curricular materials.

Keith Gambill, the president of ISTA, explained that several school districts are already concerned about their ability to pay for textbooks in the upcoming school year and that more data is needed to determine the exact dollar amount required for curricular fees.

Gambill emphasized that it should not be the responsibility of schools or school employees to make sacrifices in order to fund textbooks.

He also noted that while charter and voucher schools received significant funding increases in 2023, traditional public schools still lack appropriate appropriations.

Is spending up?

The curricular materials law in Indiana states that public schools must provide curricular materials to students at no cost. However, parents can be charged a reasonable fee for lost or significantly damaged materials.

Last year, the IDOE issued guidelines to local school officials clarifying what qualifies as “curriculum materials.”

According to the department, curriculum materials include books, hardware used by one student during a semester or school year, computer software, and digital content.

This definition also encompasses devices like laptops or tablets provided on a one-to-one basis in certain districts. Materials for advanced placement, dual credit, and career technical education courses are also considered curricular materials.

While schools are allowed to charge non-curricular fees and fees for lost or damaged items, they cannot require parents to pay for insurance that covers technology. However, parents can choose to purchase such insurance.

Nevertheless, the IDOE recommends that districts consult their legal counsel regarding their ability to charge “other fees.”

Before the start of the 2024 legislative session, school board officials from various districts sought clarification from lawmakers regarding the fees that can be charged. They particularly wanted to ensure that schools can charge fees for items that are not curricular materials but supplement a specific course.

Although relevant language was initially included in Senate Bill 270, permitting schools to assess fees for supplies and materials that supplement instruction, it has since been removed. It remains uncertain if this provision will be added back in the future.

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