By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

Public education is free, right?

Wrong. And it’s not priced uniformly throughout the New Orleans public school system.

At Warren Easton High School, parents are hit on average with up to $1,086 in fees to cover everything from student insurance to school publications, lab and art supplies, aptitude tests and graduation costs. At Ben Franklin High, the average fees can come to $829; at Lusher Charter School: $646; Audubon Charter, $562; and Hynes Charter, $470, according to numbers released this month in a report from Tulane’s Cowen Institute for Educational Initiatives. Easton, Franklin, Lusher, Audubon and Hynes are all Orleans Parish School Board charters, but lower fees are charged at some Recovery School District charters and at both of the charters overseen by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, The Lens has found.

Charter schools typically ask parents to pay for school uniforms, student supplies, extra-curricular activities, and before- and after-school care. Eleven schools said they also ask parents to pay for “class budget” fees, enrichment fees, or “supplemental” fees to cover items such as the student handbook, clothing with the school’s emblem, or field trips.

While schools that charge no fees are a relief to hard-strapped parents, critics of the fee system question whether the lack of that revenue source results in reduced quality and opportunity for students.

Another concern: Do the fees charged at the better-resourced schools scare off low-income students who might otherwise enroll?

With these questions in mind, The Lens developed a data base showing showing School Fees, if any, charged at New Orleans public schools. Forty-eight of the system’s 88 schools responded to our survey, most of them charters.

The data augments Cowen Institute reportage, which was limited to audit reports that list such fees as a line item. Many schools instead report these revenues  under “miscellaneous” or “other” line items, making them impossible to quantify exactly.

The reasons for the fees are not hard to find. Louisiana has long been a cheapskate when it comes to funding public education. Even after raising the annual allocation of state money – the so-called Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) – from $3,696 per student to just more than $5,000 – Louisiana gets a D-minus grade for “education spending” in this year’s “Quality Counts” report by Education Week magazine. And while the magazine gives the state a C-plus in the overall quality of education, New Orleans – like most big cities with large low-income populations – faces expensive challenges, including the cost of special education which, in cases of severe disability, can run to tens of thousands of dollars annually.

Some of that expense is allayed by Title 1 federal dollars that subsidize the cost of meals and other special services at schools with high levels of students from low-income or impoverished poverty.

In addition, some national chartering operators, including KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), kick in funds to subsidize the cost of an education at the schools they run. Some schools are also able to fundraise from private donors, none more successfully than New Orleans College Preparatory School which received $5,323 per pupil in outside funding in the 2008-2009 year.

The fees, while not a huge slice of the public school budget pie, are a reminder of the precariousness of school financing, particularly as one-time federal allocations for disaster relief following Hurricane Katrina are phased out.

Contrary to public impressions, the Cowen report found that charter schools actually collect and spend significantly less per capita – $11,416 collected, $11,195 spent – than the schools run directly by the Recovery School District ($16,514 collected, $16,117 spent) and the OPSB ($13,725 collected, $13,591 spent).

The RSD cost structure is explained in part by the higher proportion of special-needs students in their enrollment. OPSB handles a smaller proportion of special-needs students but maintains a larger central office in part because of its role managing pensions and other legacy costs.

Parents contacted by The Lens typically complained about the fees but seemed resigned to them as the price of a higher-quality education. Some raised questions about fairness and equity.

“It implies that you can only get the quality of education at our school if you can afford to pay the funds every year,” said Dedra Johnson, parent of a student at Audubon Charter School.  “If I can’t pay, does it mean that my child can’t go to schools with high test scores?”

Debi Theobald, the parent of a student at Benjamin Franklin High School, was among those resigned to the fees.

“Number one, Franklin is a well-known school nationally, and having my daughter there looks good on paper, and number two, I think there are similar fees at what might be competitive schools,” she said.

School administrators cite financial gaps as reasons for charging parents. In a letter to parents, Larry Baudoin, Franklin’s chief financial officer, asserts that a Franklin education goes above and beyond what the state deems a basic educational experience, and must be funded accordingly:

“Ben Franklin is a public charter school and receives some basic funding from the government, but there is a financial gap in funding the incurred expenses for an average school compared to a school of recognized excellence,” Baudoin writes. “In order to fund the financial gap, BFHS has to assess fees for additional learning opportunities over the basic academic program.”

The Cowen report quantifies this gap at more than $1,000  per-student during the 2008-2009 year, nowhere near the $1,953 per student deficit at Miller-McCoy Academy, the highest in the system. Akili Academy, Intercultural Charter School, and the schools in the UNO Charter Network (Terrace, Marshall, Capdau, Nelson) all had per student deficits roughly the same as Franklin’s.

At Franklin, enrichment fees vary by grade level and range from $280 to $375, according to a breakdown provided by the school. The money goes towards student insurance, student publications, college aptitude testing, and graduation costs, among other things. Franklin’s course fees, which can range from $5 to $180, largely offset the cost of Advanced Placement exams and materials, as well as materials for arts, sciences and foreign language classes.

While the state gives money to low-income students who want to take AP exams, other students must pay the full amount. Just 29 percent of Franklin’s students receive free or reduced price lunch, the standard measure of low income or impoverishment, according to state data. (At many schools, as much as 90 percent of the student body falls into those categories.) The cost of an AP exam this year is $87, according to the College Board, the organization that creates the exam. Like most schools that responded to The Lens survey, Franklin offers an installment plan or financial assistance for students from lower-income households.

In addition to a $195 enrichment fee, the International School of Louisiana uses fees as punishment: $5 tardy fee, plus a lateness fee of $5 plus $1 each minute that students in after-school care are not picked up on time. Sean Wilson, the school’s chief executive officer, said the punishment fees are funneled into enrichment programming for the students.

While most schools report deficits or a break-even annual budget, Lusher Charter School showed a per student surplus of $3,205 in the 2008-2009 school year, the Cowen Institute found. Since then funds have been harder to come by, and parent contributions are a big help, according to Kathy Riedlinger, the school’s chief executive officer.

“We were still getting federal funding, we were still experiencing generosity in terms of Hurricane Katrina aid,” Riedlinger said in explaining the one-year surplus. “There is a big difference between now and that year. We are no longer getting Title 1 funds. I don’t anticipate another surplus this year.”

Schools qualify for Title 1 funding if 40 percent of their enrollment receives free or reduced-price lunch. This school year, 27 percent of Lusher’s students fall into this category.

Lusher has come under fire for asking parents for extra financial cushioning. In 2007, State Superintendent Paul Pastorek formally advised the school that its $175 “instructional fee,” as well as the money it asked parents to pay for AP classes, were illegal:

“The [instructional] fee is not related to any particular activity or service and amounts to an “attendance fee” prohibited by law. Secondly, your charter is assessing a fee for taking AP courses for “study guide material.” The Louisiana Constitution specifically requires that all school books and materials be provided free of charge,” Pastorek advised in a letter to the school.

Riedlinger noted that AP courses still carry fees, but that they are voluntary.

“That letter was initially sent in 2007, when someone had contacted [Pastorek] about our fees. We are still charging those fees,” she said. “He sent me that letter and he talked to me, and we went over what those fees were. He gave me the OK to keep charging those fees after we spoke…they are not attendance fees, they are for a particular activity.”

Asked about the Lusher fees, Ileana Ledet, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education responded in writing:

“These fees appear to fall within the framework of the law. However, recognizing that fees can create a hardship, especially for economically disadvantaged students and families, we caution all school districts and schools, including charters, to carefully evaluate the issuance of fees.”

Asked about the apparent contradiction between the statement and Pastorek’s 2007 letter, the DOE replied as follows:

“There is nothing contradictory about the letter and the statement we released yesterday.  Our statement was centered on the legality of charging students fees for optional Advanced Placement courses.  The concern raised in the 2007 letter is addressing fees for study guides for Advanced Placement courses.  If these Advanced Placement courses were required to meet graduation or curriculum requirements, and the study guides were not supplemental, but required as a component of the course work, the fees may not be allowable by law, as referenced in the correspondence.”

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...