Chesterton Tribune

A Chesterton Tribune Editorial: Time to end de facto tuition for public schools

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A Chesterton Tribune Editorial: Time to end de facto tuition for public schools

A family with a first-grader, a third-grader, and a fifth-grader will pay $377 in tuition next fall when it enrolls its children in the Duneland School Corporation.

Pardon us. Not tuition.

Under Art. 8 Sec. 3 of the Constitution of the State of Indiana, in the “general and uniform system of Common Schools” which the General Assembly is obligated to provide, “tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.”

So the $377 which that family will pay clearly can’t be tuition, since tuition would be unconstitutional.

But textbook rentals unaccountably are not.

As parents and the ICLU come to grips with the decision of the Duneland School Board to offer full-day kindergarten to kids whose folks are willing and able to pay $2,000 for the privilege, we would do well to remember that Indiana is one of only three states which permit textbook rentals. And though the General Assembly may itself distinguish constitutionally between a fee exacted by school corporations to educate children and a fee exacted by school corporations to educate children, families scrambling to make ends meet are unlikely to see a difference in the distinction. Especially if they happen to be among the 75 to 100 families which, Assistant Superintendent Dirk Baer tells the Chesterton Tribune, the DSC takes to court every year in an effort to collect delinquent rentals.

It’s their rotten luck to live in Indiana.

For 47 states do manage somehow to make textbooks available to their students at no charge. Forty-seven states, almost a nation’s worth, grasp the fact that textbooks differ not a bit from chalk and desks and maps and globes. In Indiana, on the other hand, a monumental failure of the will legislated in I.C. 20-5-2-2(11) gives school corporations the option of loaning textbooks or renting them.

But Baer knows of no school corporation in the state so affluent or so generous as to furnish them gratis. As it is, he says, textbook rentals are virtually a losing proposition for the DSC, even over the six-year life of an approved textbook. Students who qualify for free or reduced lunch under federal guidelines receive their textbooks at no charge, yet the state rarely reimburses the DSC 100 percent of that subsidy. Last year it reimbursed only 80.4 percent, and in no one year does the DSC collect enough in rentals to cover the whole cost of textbooks.

Meanwhile, Baer says, parents spend an estimated $500,000 annually on rentals: buckets of cash siphoned not only from family checking accounts but from a teetering Duneland economy to assume an expense which—the General Assembly promises us—is not tuition. Yet the injury done to household budgets is hardly as grievous as the insult to a cherished principle: free public education, the right of every citizen of this state and of this country. Textbook rentals smack of the rate system employed 150 years ago, when parents would pay a given rate for each day of their children’s attendance past the date when public funding was gone. Textbook rentals pit poor family against rich family. Textbook rentals tilt a playing field which of all playing fields must be kept scrupulously level.

The Tribune believes that the General Assembly should summon its will to relieve parents of this burden, either by dedicating state funds or by enacting a mechanism which allows school corporations to raise the funds themselves. It should summon the will to abolish de facto tuition. It should summon the will to uphold the Indiana Constitution.