Indiana officials say they want more information about what fees schools are charging families

Textbooks are covered by the state. But Hoosier education leaders say “hidden fees” are still being billed to parents.

By: - February 9, 2024 6:30 am
textbook

A bill moving through the Indiana General Assembly would require local school leaders to complete a survey about spending on curricular materials. (Getty Images)

Indiana’s K-12 schools are spending more than state leaders expected on student textbooks — and some are still sending bills to students’ families — prompting lawmakers to request additional information about what’s being expensed.

The questioning comes a year after the General Assembly dedicated $160 million in the current state budget to eliminate textbook and curriculum fees for Hoosier families, starting with the 2023-24 academic year.

Based on the funds available in May 2023, the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) estimated the per student reimbursement amount to schools would be approximately $151.88. Based on spending in the current academic year, however, the actual per student reimbursement amount came out to $158.21. 

Still, IDOE data obtained by the Indiana Capital Chronicle shows the state reimbursed 395 traditional K-12 districts and charter schools a total of about $159 million for the current academic year — about a million dollars below what was appropriated.

What’s not clear, though, is the amount each school actually spent on textbooks and other materials overall, or how much individual districts requested in reimbursements from the state.

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Public School List FY 24

 

Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner said IDOE “gave some schools more than they asked for,” while other schools “significantly increased their asks.”

After seeing those reimbursement numbers, Jenner emphasized that state officials want to “better understand what we are spending on,” and whether schools should make more efficient decisions” on curricular materials moving forward. 

She said, too, there needs to be more investigation around other fees schools are still charging parents — like for certain college-level course materials and school management software like Skyward.

“All around, we need a better understanding of what we’re charging for,” Jenner said, adding that a deeper analysis into longitudinal curricular materials spending data is also underway. “How are we best determining what to charge our families … and make sure we’re very aware of any additional fees beyond what the state is reimbursing.”

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

As such, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb included in his 2024 agenda a statewide review of curricular materials expenses, following the state’s 2023 commitment to cover textbook fees in K-12 schools. 

Language in House Bill 1243 so far requires all public schools to participate in an annual statewide survey concerning school fees charged to students or parents. Local officials would have to complete the survey to be eligible to receive a distribution from the statewide curricular materials fund.

“I think that it’s a legitimate concern. … It’s so important to be very transparent about costs, especially. You’ve got to be transparent about quality, and you’ve got to be transparent about access, but costs need to be reported,” the governor said. “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

Until the current school year, Indiana was one of seven states that still allowed districts to charge parents of K-12 students for textbooks. 

In recent academic years, annual textbook fees for a single Hoosier student averaged from $80 to $200. The amount billed varied significantly, however, depending on a student’s grade level and what district they attended.  

Fees at some schools escalated into the hundreds of dollars per student as course materials transitioned from traditional books to technology-centered resources like iPads and Chromebook tablets, for example. On top of that, many families continue to dish out additional dollars for school supplies, calculators, sports fees and band rentals.

No more school textbook bills for Indiana parents — but what other fees can still be charged?

Holcomb’s 2023 agenda called on the legislature to prohibit families from being on the hook for curricular fees and instead require public schools to provide those materials to all students at no cost. Taxpayer dollars already covered the cost of textbooks for students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

Lawmakers signed on, appropriating $160 million for the initiative’s inaugural year, based on an estimate of $150 per student for the state’s 1 million pupils.

Under the new process, schools send their curricular expenses to the IDOE. Officials there then take the total and divide it by the number of students statewide. That gives an amount per student that is multiplied by how many students each district has. Then, that amount was sent in one lump sum to individual school districts in December.

While the new law was championed by state officials, school districts have since been left trying to figure out what they have to cover and what they don’t — especially when it comes to advanced classes and career development courses.

Multiple district administrators told the Capital Chronicle that families have long been charged those added fees, and billing for such continues to be within the realm of the law.

As part of its 2024 agenda, the Indiana State Teachers Association has also called for the legislature to earmark more money in the second year of the biennium to “fully fund” the cost of textbooks and curricular materials. 

Keith Gambill, ISTA’s president, said the union is aware of “several” school districts that are already concerned about their ability to pay for textbooks in the upcoming 2024-25 school year. Gambill said more data needs to be collected before ISTA can recommend an exact dollar for curricular fees.

“If schools are forced to either make changes in staffing or other programming in order to fully fund the textbooks, then we’re not getting the best for our students,” he said. “It shouldn’t be upon them — and not born on the backs of school employees — to make that happen.”

Gambill said while charter and voucher schools benefited from significant funding boosts in the 2023 session, traditional public schools still lack “appropriate” appropriations.

Is spending up?

The curricular materials law itself is somewhat vague, saying public schools must “provide curricular materials to students at no cost,” but that parents can be charged “a reasonable fee for lost or significantly damaged curricular materials.”

Last year, IDOE issued guidance to local school officials about what counts as “curriculum materials.”

The department defines those as “books; hardware that will be consumed, accessed, or used by a single student during a semester or school year; computer software; and digital content.”

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That includes one-to-one laptops or tablets given to students in some districts. Materials for advanced placement, dual credit, and career technical education courses — but not dual enrollment courses — also count as curricular materials, according to IDOE.

But schools are still allowed to charge families non-curricular fees and for other odds and ends, and for lost or damaged items. Parents in some districts are additionally offered the option to pay for insurance that covers technology used by their students. School districts cannot require parents to pay for that insurance, however.

Even so, IDOE’s guidance instructs districts to consult their own legal council about their ability to charge “other fees.”

Before the 2024 legislative session began, school board officials from around the state sought clarification from lawmakers on what fees can and can’t be charged. Specifically, local leaders wanted to ensure that schools are allowed to charge fees for items that fall outside the definition of curricular materials and supplement the instruction of a particular course.

One policy recommendation sought to define such supplies and materials as laboratory supplies, textbooks required in a dual credit course, items used and kept by the student, musical instruments, and uniforms for co-curricular activities, among other things.

Sen. Linda Rogers, R-Granger, included relevant language in her Senate Bill 270, permitting schools to assess and collect “a reasonable fee for supplies and materials” that “are not curricular materials” and “supplement the instruction in a particular course of study.”

That provision has since been amended out of the bill, though. It’s not certain if it will be added back in that measure or any others.

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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.

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