John Walker, the Little Rock state representative and attorney for black families in the Little Rock school case, is challenging the Little Rock School Board on long practice of assessing fines on students who are tardy or miss summer school classes. The fees grow for non-payment and Walker said non-payment has been used to keep the children out of classes.
He filed a Freedom of Information request for the fine collections. The district resisted. Walker sued successfully and the attorney general issued an opinion that the information should be public. The district has now supplied the information at the top, but a district attorney said it represented all summer school collections. He said it was impossible to account separately only for the fines.
Walker wrote in a letter to the School Board:
As you all contemplate segregating children further on the basis of income by setting up smart student schools [the board is considering converting an elementary and middle school to attract top students], please take into account your historic treatment of poor students who don’t do well during the regular year, who go to summer school and fail there as well because of your gining students as if they are criminals and otherwise treating them in the same manner.
The long term board members (Curry, Carriero and Adams) are respectfully requested to respond to my letter or to set a public meeting where the public can have it explained why the poor children ofthe district who are required to attend summer school can’t get educated during the summer time either. Your urgent attention to this matter is urgently requested.
Walker hoped to ask new superintendent Dexter Suggs about the fining practice at a public meeting this evening. No report yet on what transpired.
The attorney general, by the way, gave only a tepid OK to assessing fines on students. He said there was no law on the point But he said it wouldn’t be proper to bar students from attendance until fines were paid and he said the collections should be open under the FOI. A summary of his opinion follows:
(Q1) Are school districts authorized by law to collect from public school children fees or fines for late fees, student discipline and tuition?
(Q2) If so, may payment of such fees or fines be a condition for continued enrollment? (
Q3) Must a school district account to the public for such fees or fines collected?
Q1) School districts are generally prohibited from charging any fees that might compromise students’ equal access to “a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools” as guaranteed by Article 14, Sec. 1 of the Arkansas Constitution. The Arkansas Supreme Court has generally interpreted this guarantee as foreclosing the state from conditioning public-school attendance upon the payment of tuition or registration fees. The Arkansas legislature, however, in legislation that is presumed constitutional, has approved charging tuition to non-indigent students for “optional” summer-school courses — a category that may well include make-up course work offered during the summer term. No court has yet addressed the constitutional propriety of charging “late fees” for untimely summer-school registration. In my opinion, however, reasonable late fees of this sort might pass constitutional muster. The same conclusion applies to other traditional varieties of “late fees” such as library fines, which might also be deemed acceptable so long as they do not foreclose equal access to a free public education. In the absence of judicial guidance, however, I am not situated to opine definitively on this question.
Q2) In my opinion, the answer to this question, which appears to be concerned with the propriety of indefinite suspension pending the payment of a fine, is “no.”