‘It’s shocking for parents:’ How one bill will reduce expensive student fees in Utah schools

A bill removes fees for in-school activities, but parents will stay have to pay for sports and after-school clubs.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) East High School students walk past lockers on the first day back to school on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. While East High does not charge a fee for its lockers, some Utah schools do — and under HB211, the Legislature would eliminate many such fees currently paid by parents.

Saving up to pay school fees each August will be easier for parents in Utah under a new bill presented to the House Education Committee Thursday.

HB211 would prevent schools from charging a fee for almost all in-school activities, sponsor Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, told the committee. Parents would still have to pay fees for their student to participate in extracurricular activities, like athletic teams or clubs. The bill was unanimously approved by the committee and is headed to the House.

“It’s shocking for parents, particularly from out of state when they come to Utah, and suddenly that first day of school, they have a huge bill,” Robertson said. “Often, it’s hundreds of dollars per student. Now, we won’t eliminate all of those, but a substantial portion of that would be eliminated.”

At Timpview High School, where Robertson’s children attend, each student is required to pay a $100 general fee. There are many other schools throughout the state that charge a general fee between $50 and $110 per student, Robertson said. Schools can also charge individual course fees for required classes, locker fees and fees for textbooks.

Those fees add up quickly for parents with multiple students in secondary schools, Robertson said. Under HB211, the Legislature would replace the funding that schools collect from fees, Robertson explained, and Gov. Spencer Cox has already built in $55 million into his budget to pay schools.

“In general, people love the idea of getting rid of school fees. The question’s all around the funding mechanism,” Robertson said.

Education at public schools should be free under Utah’s constitution, Robertson noted, but the Legislature is allowed to authorize secondary schools to collect fees. Previously, the choice of where and how to use fees fell to school boards, but HB211 would give that power back to the Legislature.

In 2020, the Legislature asked the Utah State Board of Education to measure fees paid by parents. The state board found that $83 million was spent by parents per year, according to a report released in November 2021.

Robertson asked the governor to allocate funding for the amount the study found parents spent on curricular fees and on “co-curricular” activities, which require participation both in the classroom and outside normal school hours — such as performing arts classes or science competitions. That amounted to $55 million or $152 per student.

Parents would still have to pay four types of co-curricular fees, for AP tests, driver education, instrument rentals and supplies that a student keeps, such as clay used in a pottery class. All fees for extracurricular activities, like a band trip or athletic attire for a sports team, still fall on parents under HB211.

A 2018 audit by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General found that Utah schools charged students excessive and unreasonable dues to participate in sports and extracurricular clubs, and, in many cases, ignored fee waivers for low-income students.

HB211 will not address those problems, instead focusing on removing fees preventing classroom participation.

Robertson said he considered asking to compensate schools for the lost funding through a special program, but realized that route would restrict how schools use the money. Instead, the money will be distributed through the WPU, or weighted pupil unit, the metric which the Legislature uses to distribute per-pupil funding.

WPU funds are mostly used to pay for employee salaries, committee member Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, noted. But Robertson said funding through WPU would give the most flexibility for schools to buy supplies and textbooks they would have previously relied on fees to fund.

Some committee members expressed concern that schools may need to remove some educational programs if the funding provided by the WPU falls short of what was previously paid through fees. Robertson told the committee that he had assurances from “very high levels” that the Legislature’s planned boost to WPU funding would cover the costs.

“We believe that [HB211] will help all working families in the state of Utah that send their children to public education classes,” said Rita Heagren, vice president of political action for the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers during public comment. “But what we worry about is that too many teachers already use their own money to get supplies in classrooms.”

Heagren explained that during her time as a math department chair in Granite School District, her teachers had a budget of 25 cents per student for the year. Schools are hurting for funding that actually gets into the classroom, Heagren said.

“As long as this money makes it to the classroom and doesn’t get siphoned off in the districts along the way, we’d really like this,” Heagren said. However, Heagren said she would “be upset if this money made it to the classroom at the expense of classified employees,” whose pay also needs sufficient funding.