School Districts May Utilize Their Own School Fee Waivers and Verification Process
Lately we have received a number of inquiries regarding school fee waivers. At the beginning of the current 2009-2010 school year, legislation was passed (Public Act 96-0360) allowing school districts to establish their own application process for determining and verifying students’ eligibility for school fee waivers. The following is a summary of the new legislation.
Prior to September 1, 2009, school districts were required to waive at least the cost of textbooks and instructional materials for any student whose family was unable to afford them. Students qualified for the waiver if their family income was within the federally established guidelines for free meals, even if the students did not actually participate in the federal meals program. Schools could also elect to waive fees for students eligible for reduced-price meals, and/or for students whose families were unable to afford them because of extenuating circumstances, as defined in school fee waiver policies, in the discretion of each individual school district. For those students eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals, school districts were required to adopt the standards established for the federal meals program, which restricts school districts to verifying only 3% of the approved meal applications on file as of October 1 of each year, unless “just cause” requires further verification.
The process described above remains the same ― school districts may continue to use this process to determine eligibility for school fee waivers. With the passage of this new law, they also now have the option of establishing their own process for granting school fee waivers.
Under Public Act 96-0360, instead of being restricted to the process described above, school districts may now choose to establish their own procedures for granting school fee waivers. The law is silent regarding specific standards, which means that school districts have significant latitude in determining eligibility criteria. If districts elect to establish their own procedures, they may also establish their own process for verifying students’ eligibility for school fee waivers. The Illinois Legislature enacted this legislation to permit school districts to verify a student’s family income throughout the year, particularly for those circumstances where a student’s financial situation changes in the middle of the school year. As mentioned above, school districts are otherwise limited to verifying only 3% of the approved meal applications on file as of October 1 of each year, unless “just cause” requires further verification. Under the new law, a school district using its own application process may verify a student’s eligibility for a fee waiver as often as every 60 calendar days, including a student asserting eligibility under the federal income guidelines. A school district may deny a fee waiver if it obtains information during the verification process demonstrating that the student’s family income is not within the federal income guidelines for free meals. The district cannot, however, use such information to deny a student’s participation in the free meals program.