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April 28, 2020

Lack of Access to Technology at Home, Coupled with Unconstitutional Summer School Fees, Will Worsen Racial Disparity Impacts of Coronavirus

Learn more about Rozon v. Prince George’s County Board of Education

GREENBELT, MD – A new legal filing argues that Prince George's County Board of Education in Maryland must stop charging students to attend summer school both because it violates their state constitutional right to a free public education and because the COVID-19 pandemic will likely force more students, largely from families with low income and Black and Brown children, to attend summer classes than ever before. The filing, made late yesterday, is the latest development in a significant access-to-education case filed last June against the Prince George's County Board of Education to stop it from charging mandatory fees for students to attend summer school. 

"For some kids, they need extra help over the summer," said plaintiff Wanda Ford, who was granted custody of her four grandchildren after her daughter died. "If they need summer school so they can graduate, it's not fair that they are held back if the parents can't pay. They should not have to pay to go to school."

Prince George's policy of charging for summer school means that many students will be harmed even further during one of the most difficult challenges in history facing Maryland and the nation. After missing a full month of school without any instruction at all, students in Prince George's County finally began online home instruction on April 14. Although the district has taken steps to increase computer and internet availability, students whose families have low income will be disadvantaged by a model that relies primarily on resources they disproportionately do not have. The result is that thousands of students will likely miss nearly one-third of the school year and, if they have not achieved a passing grade by the end of the school year, will need access to summer school in order to get the education they need and have a right to.

"Because I am on a fixed income and am raising my two grandchildren, I can't afford to pay for summer school," said plaintiff Audrey Belton, who could not afford to pay for night school for her grandson and now faces summer school fees. "I don't have extra money like that. It is not fair that my grandson can't attend summer school because I can't pay."

"Now more than ever, we need the Maryland Constitution's protection that all courses required for graduation be free," said Ajmel Quereshi, Co-Director of the Howard University School of Law Civil and Human Rights Clinic. "This situation highlights why the Constitution prohibits charging for required courses, even when offered during the summer."  

"While it is unconstitutional at any point for Prince George's County, or any Maryland county, to charge mandatory summer school fees, it is particularly unconscionable to do so now, in the midst of a global pandemic that has already disrupted so much of our children’s education," said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland.

Prince George's County, Maryland has a long and unfortunate history of denial of educational opportunity, particularly to students who are Black or from families with low income. This history has unfolded against the backdrop of Article VIII of the Maryland Constitution, which requires that all students be provided a thorough, free, and efficient education.

Despite this unequivocal mandate that public education must be free, Prince George's County continues to charge even students from families with the lowest incomes, i.e., those eligible for free and reduced meals, $125 for a single credit of summer school. In doing so, the County has violated the explicit terms of the Maryland Constitution by denying students with financial challenges the opportunity to attend summer school classes if they cannot afford them.

The denial of the opportunity to enroll in such courses unless they pay, constitutes an unequivocal violation of Article VIII's requirement that education in Maryland be "[f]ree."

Plaintiffs are middle and high school students in Prince George's County Public Schools who have had difficulty successfully completing their coursework. Overall, because many students in Prince George's County Public Schools cannot afford to pay the per credit fee the school system imposes, many students could be forced to repeat the entire grade in which they are enrolled, which could prevent them from graduating with their peers. 

The case name is Nalda Rozon v. Prince George's County Board of Education, Case No. CAL19-1930, Circ. Crt., Prince George’s Cnty.

The plaintiffs are represented by Richard A. Koffman, Emmy L. Levens, and Sabira F. Khan of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC; Ajmel Quereshi, Co-Director of the Howard University School of Law Civil and Human Rights Clinic; and Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland.