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Ironically, the high costs of free public education may be keeping some Utah students from completing their courses.

The issue of school fees has been catapulted into the spotlight once again this week with the filing of a class action lawsuit and a report by Utah Issues that many families are feeling the effects of fees and the reluctance of schools to waive the fees for those who can't afford them.Looked at historically, the issue takes on some perspective. For many years, school fees were not allowed at all, in keeping with Utah's constitutional mandate for a free public education.

Faced with chronic too-much-need-and-too-little-money, the Utah Legislature in the late 1980s braved the complicated process of changing the Constitution to allow schools to charge fees for students in grades 7 through 12.

Many Utah school districts, however, have fallen short of the legal requirements to notify parents of the availability of waivers and then to graciously provide the waivers without embarrassing or drawing attention to students who need them. Hence the lawsuit.

Right off the bat, the notion of fees creates inequities in Utah. Some districts - predictably the poorest ones - charge fees for just about everything and anything. Some families, including middle income families who aren't eligible for waivers, are about ready for the poor house after paying the accumulation of fees each fall.

It hurts kids. The daughter of a friend looked forward this summer to a special biology class - right up to the moment she was notified that the $150 fee should be paid at her school office. She hadn't anticipated such a fee. For her and others who probably didn't even consider the enrichment course because of the fee, the option is to watch through the window while more affluent students get the summertime academic boost.

Some of the fees are patently ridiculous. It isn't at all unheard of to have a parent complain of drill team uniforms (several changes, yet) that mount up to more than a thousand dollars. Examining fees and deciding how they could be made more affordable to all students would be a good starting place to deal with the issue.

Reports that some kids drop out of school because of the embarrassment related to fees and fee waivers are probably not exaggerated. It's one more deficit added to the many faced by children from homes where money may be just one of the factors that puts them at risk. If they are teetering anyway, the hassle of getting fees waived may be just the straw that decides an adolescent in favor of staying away.

More affluent districts have few fees. In South Summit, for instance, I'm told the only routine fee is a few dollars toward the cost of a yearbook. That's pretty hard to hear if you're a parent in one of the high-fee districts.

From the school officials' viewpoint, it is a typical "Legislature giveth and Legislature taketh away" approach. With one hand, lawmakers gave the schools another source of income, while reducing it on the other hand with the mandate for waivers.

Predictably, the waiver provision hits some schools harder than others. "Poor schools" that have particular needs for the fee money, get poorer instead, in comparison to schools with wealthier communities.

A State Office of Education official suggests that one way around this particular problem would be to have fees put into a district pool, then redistributed on a per-student basis. That's a thought worth considering.

The answer is not to do away with the waivers, which are necessary to assure that no child is barred from school by inability to pay the fees. To do so would unquestionably make the situation ripe for more lawsuits.

The answer is to find a way to compensate the school districts for their losses so they lose their disincentive to grant waivers. For three years, education leaders have petitioned the Legislature for a fund from which districts could draw to compensate them for the money they lose. Estimates of the losses range from a half million dollars to several million dollars. The Legislature has consistently bypassed the request in the press for other education needs. Maybe it's time to look more closely.