Homeless students and low-income families must ask in writing to get school fees waived

By Beth Malik, Associate Director of the Law Project

Now that the school year is coming to a close, students in Illinois look forward to special school activities, including graduation, prom, senior luncheons, and field trips.

Every year the Law Project receives many calls from low-income students and families who are being pressured by their schools to pay hundreds of dollars in fees before graduation or year-end. In some cases, school officials threaten to exclude students from important events, such as prom or graduation.

Yet under state law, many of these fees are required to be waived for students and families unable to afford them, including those who are homeless or low-income.

In most cases, a student or parent must file a written request to have their school fees waived. In the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), students or parents fill out a CPS Fee Waiver Form.

School officials cannot bar a student from participating in school activities, such as prom or graduation, due to their inability to pay. The Illinois School Code prohibits “discrimination or punishment of any kind, including the lowering of grades or exclusion from classes… against a student whose parents or guardians are unable to purchase required textbooks or instructional materials or to pay required fees.”

To qualify as low-income in CPS, a student or family cannot exceed 130% of the federal poverty guidelines (used to determine eligibility for free school meals). That includes annual incomes of $21,398 for a family of 2; $27,014, family of 3; and $5,616 for each additional family member.

In suburban and downstate schools, students who qualify for free school meals are eligible for fee waivers.

Some examples of school fees that must be waived for low-income students:

  • Charges for textbooks and instructional materials
  • Fees for field trips taken during school hours, or field trips taken after school hours if the field trip is a required or customary part of a class or school activity. This includes annually scheduled trips such as end-of-the-year or graduation field trips and activities.
  • Graduation fees, including caps and gowns
  • Charges or deposits for uniforms or equipment for sports or fine arts
  • Charges for supplies for a particular class, such as shop or home economics materials, or laboratory or art supplies.
  • Charges and deposits for use of school property, such as locks, towels, and lab equipment.
  • Driver’s education fees
  • Fees to obtain school records and health services

Schools do not have to waive some fees and costs, including ordinary school supplies, class rings, yearbooks, school photos and diploma covers, admission to school dances and athletic events and optional travel. While these fees are not required to be waived, many schools have programs to help students and families with these costs.

The Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is available to assist students and families seeking school fee waivers.

Families needing information or assistance can call toll-free at 1 (800) 940-1119.