Oregon public schools will likely continue to collect tuition from out-of-district students. That appears to be the upshot of weeks of debate over a bill to ban tuition.

If you look up House Bill 27-48, you'll see that it's still being debated -- and that it was on a legislative agenda Wednesday. But the debate is now about how to change the bill so that schools can still charge tuition.

OPB's education reporter, Rob Manning, has been tracking this bill and he joined me.

Good afternoon, Rob.

Hi Beth.

Beth Hyams: So, Oregon public schools can charge tuition. How prevalent a practice is this?

Rob Manning: Lots of schools charge tuition in a few limited ways. For instance -- since schools don't get full funding from the state for kindergarten, some public schools charge parents to send their kids for a full school day of kindergarten. That's expected to end in a few years, though.

According to the Oregon Department of Education there have been between 20 and 35 school districts that have charged students in recent years. That's been for students from neighboring districts.

Many of them charged tuition for just one student -- or even a fraction of a student -- that's when a student might come in, mid-year. But there's one district that leans far more on tuition. Roughly a quarter of the kids in the Riverdale district pay tuition.

Beth Hyams: We'll talk more about Riverdale in a second. I thought public schools were free. What are the rules for charging tuition?

Rob Manning: In general, school districts can't charge tuition when the state of Oregon is paying for a student.

That means you can't charge tuition for students in your own school boundaries - so, this is about students coming from another district.

For students who are allowed to transfer away by the student's home district, and allowed to transfer in by the receiving district -- state funding follows that student, and tuition can't be charged.

Tuition can be charged when a student can't transfer out of their home district, and the receiving district is therefore unable to get state funding for that student.

Beth Hyams: How often does that happen?

Rob Manning: Well, it used to happen a lot, because whether or not a student could leave used to require the home district's permission.

But, two years ago, legislators created a system of "open enrollment" - which meant school districts could no longer stop kids from leaving. That bill didn't deal with tuition. But the spirit remained, meaning you can't charge tuition for kids, when you're getting state money for them.

Beth Hyams: So, let's see if I get this, then. The justification for charging tuition was that school districts could stop students from leaving, and stop state school funding from following that student - so if a family absolutely wanted to move a child, the only way for the school to get money for that kid was through tuition. But with open enrollment - a district can't stop the student or the funding from moving. So why does a district still have to charge tuition?

Rob Manning: That is the question that Democratic Representative Sara Gelser basically had. She's the chair of the House Education Committee, and is opposed to public schools charging tuition. When I spoke to her earlier this week, she also wondered why a school district couldn't use open enrollment to get state funding for out-of-district students, rather than charge tuition.

Other legislators worried that the "open enrollment" law is scheduled to sunset in a few years. Others say open enrollment has had unintended consequences.

But she ran into a buzz-saw of opposition, primarily from the Riverdale School District.

Beth Hyams: What was Riverdale's problem?

Rob Manning: Unlike most other districts that charge roughly the state's funding rate for students -- about $6,000 -- Riverdale charges $12,000. If they moved their kids over to "open enrollment," they'd only get $6,000.

What's more, Riverdale officials say they weren't sure they could use "open enrollment" to just shift their tuition-paying students over, even if they wanted to. They were warned that using open enrollment exclusively for families who are capable of paying 12-grand a year for education would amount to discrimination on the basis of income level.

Beth Hyams: What's next with this bill?

Rob Manning: Lawmakers focused on one change to how tuition is handled at their work session Wednesday. It's to require tuition-charging districts to accept students from poverty, and allow them in for free. The statewould cover the cost of those students, same as they would at their home district. The bill would also prevent school districts from charging tuition in the future, if they aren't doing it for the upcoming school year. The bill was held over until Friday for a vote.

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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