Asked & Answered- ACLU asks judge to stop Ann Arbor schools' plan to charge students for classes

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

In a lawsuit filed last week, Ann Arbor high school students and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan asked a circuit court judge to stop the school district from implementing a new "tuition-based" program that charges students $100 per semester for access to a seventh hour class.

The lawsuit contends that the new policy denies students a free and equal public education as required under the Michigan Constitution.

The Legal News talked to ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss about the case.

Q: Why is the ACLU involved in this issue?

A: This new policy denies students a free and equal public education as required under the Michigan Constitution. Education is the cornerstone of our democracy. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized "the public schools as a most vital civic institution for the preservation of a democratic system of government."?

Q: The seventh hour is considered optional. As such, is the $100 fee out-of-line?

A: While the seventh hour may be outside of the six hours of instruction mandated by law, the period is no different than any other earlier in the day - students are taught by the same teachers, study from the same books and lesson plans and obtain credits toward graduation. The courts have made it clear that any item or program that is an "integral fundamental part" of education must be free to all students. Since students are awarded academic credits for the seventh hour class, the policy clearly falls within this category.

For example, one of our clients, Paloma Paez-Coombe, is a junior at Pioneer High School who plans to take a seventh hour course both semesters this year. She is involved in theater and orchestra and wants to take four years of a language but cannot do that and participate in the orchestra program without taking a seventh hour course.

Who says that it will stop at $100? While approving the measure, Board Member Glen Nelson was quoted by "A year from now, we may need to be taking much more drastic steps (with the budget) and if we had the institutional arrangements and the structure in place, the legal settlings' established precedent, then we could go to a more robust tuition-based model."

Q: You've said that ACLU of Michigan believes that Ann Arbor Public Schools is the first school district in the State to implement a "tuition-based" learning model at one of the state's free public schools. Could this set a precedent??

A: As school districts try to manage in a difficult economic climate, any number of methods may be tried but, first and foremost, districts must adhere to Article 8, §2 of the Michigan Constitution which provides: "[t]he legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law."

We cannot provide a high quality of education to students, prepare them for the modern workforce, narrow the achievement gap, and otherwise have the kind of educational system that will make Michigan attract talent and business if districts provide only the absolute minimum and make the extras available only to those who can afford them.

Q: The ACLU of Michigan filed the lawsuit on behalf of two music students who rely on the seventh hour classes to obtain enough credits to graduate while also participating in music, art, foreign language, advanced placement courses and alternative career programs.

Is this different from paying to play sports?

A: Absolutely. Pioneer and Huron High School students who enroll in seven courses receive grades and academic credit for each course. Moreover, each course taken by seven-hour PHS and HHS students is used to calculate the student's overall grade point average.

During a particular semester, the seven courses taken by certain PHS and HHS students may all be required courses, while during another semester the majority of courses on a student's schedule may be electives. The seventh course is therefore indistinguishable from the student's other six courses.

The Michigan Supreme Court has already said that Ann Arbor schools cannot charge fees for programs that are a necessary element of the education process in a 1968 court order enjoining AAPS from charging $5 and $7 registration fees.

Published: Thu, Aug 15, 2013