Utah parents who collectively pay tens of millions in curricular fees to their children’s middle and high schools each year could win a reprieve under a proposal before the Utah Legislature.

HB211, sponsored by Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, would prohibit Utah schools from charging curricular fees and portions of co-curricular fees and would appropriate $55 million in state funding to help offset fees paid annually by Utah families. The bill does not address fees paid for extracurricular activities.

By attaching the funding to the weighted pupil unit, the basic building block of education funding in Utah, the bill would force schools to prioritize curricular programs, Robertson said.

“We have an obligation as a society, a moral obligation, to educate the upcoming generation, and our priority there is for the core curricular topics. That’s where we’re not going to have any fees. The extra things are supplemental to the education, the extracurricular will remain unchanged,” Robertson said.

According to a recent Utah State Board of Education report, Utah schools collected nearly $83 million in school fees during the 2020-2021 school year, an increase of 5.6% from the previous school year. The report notes the 2021 data was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the $83 million collected, more than $53 million was for curricular or co-curricular fees with the remaining $29.1 million for extracurricular activities such as Utah High School Activities Association-sanctioned sports.

Curricular activity is defined as an instructional activity, course or program provided or supported by a school and occurs during school hours. Under HB211, a school could no longer assess a fee for lab supplies for a science class.

A co-curricular activity is a course or program outside of school hours that also includes a required regular school day program or curriculum. According to the Utah State Board of Education’s school fees website, co-curricular activities are an “extension of a curricular activity, is included in an instructional plan and supervised or conducted by a teacher or education professional.”

Under Utah law, students who are economically disadvantaged are eligible for fee waivers of all types of school fees. A report to the Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee in November for the 2020-2021 fiscal year indicated that 51% of students who were eligible for the waivers did not seek them.

Ella Gardner sings during an orchestra class at Alta High School in Sandy on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Karriane Prince, whose four children have attended and participated in athletics at Skyline High School, said Robertson’s proposal is intriguing but she questions whether the proposed $55 million appropriation will be sufficient for the effort’s inaugural year, and whether the Utah Legislature will sustain it.

“I worry that they wouldn’t give enough money to the schools to pay the cost of those classes. The theory sounds lovely but we are what, 49th or 50th or 51st in terms of our school funding?” she said.

Prince said she is fortunate in that paying school fees is not a hardship for her family, but she is well aware of families with incomes that exceed the fee waiver threshold and struggle to pay school fees.

Education officials worry, as a matter of education equity and access, fees may discourage or prohibit students from participating in certain school programs.

That’s why the Legislature must properly support curricular programs, Prince said.

“If I thought they were actually going to put enough money in the pot, then it would be great. I just don’t have the confidence to say that,” she said.

Robertson, the father of eight children, said the legislation “will force schools to do something really hard, it forces them to prioritize. It says, ‘I have to fund the curricular things first,’” he said.

The legislation, which has been introduced in the House of Representatives, is supported by Utah. Gov. Spencer Cox, who mentioned the proposal in his recent State of the State address.

“This legislation being drafted by Rep. Adam Robertson will save Utah parents $55 million each year, with many of those dollars going to Utah families struggling to meet essential financial obligations,” Cox said.

School fees funding is one of the Utah State Board of Education’s top funding priorities but it is recommending that the state appropriate $180 million in one-time funding to offset revenue schools would no longer receive from parents for curricular and non-curricular fees over three years.

That would appropriate about $170 per student in grades 7-12 and result in fewer fees being charged to Utah families, improve education equity and increase student participation rates in programs that currently charge curricular or co-curricular fees, according to board documents.

“Fifty-five million times three is not $180 (million),” said State Deputy Superintendent of Operations Scott Jones. The figure is intentionally “dynamic,” to factor in enrollment estimates, inflation and rising prices of supplies, he said.

“We’re very conscientious of the fact that there could be price pressures in the future on supplies or materials that go into classrooms like chemistry equipment could become more expensive,” Jones told the Utah Legislature’s Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Monday.

The state school board has not taken a position on HB211.

Robertson said HB211 builds upon legislation passed in previous sessions that intended to make fee schedules more transparent, waiver policies better understood and improve accounting of the different kinds of fees assessed by Utah secondary schools.

Tamra Daley, audit director for the State School Board’s school fees consultation project, said it’s a work in progress.

The office has conducted trainings the past few years to help local educators improve their practices after audits performed at the request of legislative leaders and separately by the State School Board found Utah public schools had failed to comply with school fee and fee waiver policies.

Students prepare for orchestra class at Alta High School in Sandy on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Utah collected $71M in school fees in 2017, audit finds

The audits found wide discrepancies in curricular and extracurricular fees charged by schools across the state.

“Some schools are charging $30 for driver’s ed while some are charging $300,” which is difficult to reconcile, said Daley, who is a certified public accountant.

“I don’t care if you’re Logan or you’re St. George, it’s the same. You get a car and you teach the kids to drive,” she said.

Cheerleading fees ranged from $100 at some schools to $2,500 at another, she said.

Robertson said the fees are akin to a tax on parents “and it’s being used in some weird ways.” For instance, the high school his children attend charges students a $100 general fee at the start of the school year.

“How did the school board ever decide it was OK to charge a random $100 general fee for every student? It doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Robertson said there is general agreement in the education community about eliminating curricular fees but there is an “active discussion” on the best way to fund it.

“My view on this is really straightforward. It’s, hey, we’re going to do huge increases in education spending this year and there’ll be more than enough to compensate for the school fees elimination,” he said.

Appropriating the funding through the weighted pupil unit “keeps things equal. It puts the management of it right at the local level where it should be. That’s how we’re going to handle it and that’s fair across the state.”

Correction: In an earlier version, Emily Richards was misidentified in a photo as Emily Richard.