ACLU files lawsuit against Ann Arbor schools tuition plan

Aug 7, 2013

Earlier this summer, some students at Ann Arbor high schools were told they would have to pay for their optional last class of the day.

Many students take music, art, drama, or additional academics during an optional seventh hour. Starting in the fall, the school district plans to charge students $100 for the seventh period class.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan is challenging that plan in court.

A parent expresses her concern over a fee for seventh hour at the Ann Arbor School Board meeting earlier this summer.
A parent expresses her concern over a fee for seventh hour at the Ann Arbor School Board meeting earlier this summer.
Credit Alana Holland, Michigan Radio Newsroom

In a lawsuit filed today, the ACLU says the plan denies students access to a free and equal public education that the Michigan Constitution requires.

"The districts can charge for certain extracurricular activities but they can't charge for core instructional services," said ACLU of Michigan executive director Kary Moss. "It creates a two-tiered system of education. Not only for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, but many other students won't be able to afford the seventh hour."

The ACLU filed the claim on behalf of two Ann Arbor families who have children at Pioneer High School.

The two students are Paloma Paez-Coombe, a junior, and Elliot Polot, a senior.

Both Paez-Coombe and Polot are involved in Pioneer's music program, and therefore need to take a seventh-hour class.

Paez-Coombe plans to take more than the two required years of a foreign language because the colleges she's interested in usually require four years. She also wants to continue to play in the school orchestra.

The lawsuit claims that Paez-Coombe's family isn't wealthy, and the additional $100 charge per semester could limit her opportunities.

Elliot Polot is involved in the music program at Pioneer and will be the school's drum major in the fall.

His family says the fee is affordable for them, but see it as unfair and burdensome for less fortunate families.

"Music is at the core of Elliot's self-image and of his future plans," said Barton Polot, Elliot's father, about Pioneer's award-winning music program, "Students like Elliot, families like mine, should not be asked to choose whether they can afford the cost of a core educational experience."

Huron High School is one of the schools that will be affected for charging for seventh hour.
Huron High School is one of the schools that will be affected for charging for seventh hour.
Credit Dwight Burdette

The ACLU’s Kary Moss explains that creating a seventh hour fee creates two tiers of education in the same school: those who can afford it and those who can't.

She says it creates a situation where students who are involved in classes such as art, home building, music, etc., can build a well-rounded, rich curriculum that will help them get accepted to competitive colleges. Moss says students' families who can afford the seventh class, will be put at an advantage over students whose families cannot.

"We know that students who take advantage of art, music, or are part of a group called Rising Scholars must take seven hours for their curriculum," Moss explains, "This is part of their core education, core instruction, that cannot be sold out."

Many parents and students spoke out at the June school board meeting against implementing a fee for seventh-hour classes.

"If you make seventh-hour only available for payment," said a parent who commented at the school board meeting, "You have to make opportunities for those who cannot afford it. I don't just mean for those who get lunch assistance, because it's becoming more and more expensive to live in Ann Arbor."

The Ann Arbor school board voted to implement the fee to  in June to balance the budget. It needs to cut $8.7 million from its operating budget for the 2013-2014 school year. The state's per pupil allowance is designed to cover the cost of a six period day, and schools are only legally required to provide six courses in a school day.

In a press release, the ACLU said:

Despite the budgetary concerns facing many districts, the 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 and warned of the dangerous precedent such a program could set across the state if left intact. 

-Alana Holland and Lucy Perkins, Michigan Radio Newsroom