SALEM &

Public school districts have no authority to charge tuition for full-day kindergarten classes, according to a formal opinion issued Tuesday by the state Attorney General's office.




The legal opinion had been expected after a Corvallis family filed a lawsuit against their school district over charging tuition for full-day kindergarten.




An estimated 2,500 families in at least 67 school districts currently pay tuition in exchange for a full day of kindergarten classes. Currently, the state only reimburses school districts for half a day of kindergarten.




"A school district that chooses to extend its kindergarten program to 6 hours per day is prohibited from charging tuition to cover instruction costs because the extended program is the regular school program," wrote Assistant Attorney General Serena Hewitt.




Districts also should not offer a tuition-supported full-day kindergarten option and try to cover their tracks by giving it another name, Hewitt warned.




The state Department of Justice has no authority to provide binding legal advice to school districts. Each district has its own legal counsel.




State schools Superintendent Susan Castillo also is charged with interpreting laws that apply to schools in Oregon.




In a response to the legal opinion, Castillo sent a letter to school superintendents, saying that she was working with legislators and school advocacy groups to find a temporary fix until the legislature convenes in 2009. The goal, she said, is to "prevent disruption to current programs."




Cindy Hunt, the legal affairs coordinator for the Oregon Department of Education, said that when lawmakers meet for a monthlong session in February, the Department of Education will ask them to pass a law allowing districts to charge tuition for full-day kindergarten for the next three school years.




Lawmakers, however, have already indicated that they aren't anxious to support such a measure.




In the meantime, some districts may chose to find other ways of funding full-day kindergarten, using existing money to pay for the program, Hunt said.




Districts that chose to either discontinue full-day kindergarten, or support it with school money will have to make their own decisions on whether to issue refunds for past tuition bills, she said.




Some districts have already forged ahead. Corvallis, for example, has decided they should no longer charge families whose children qualify for free or reduced-price meals to attend full-day kindergarten. They school is issuing refunds to the handful of low-income families who paid $290 a month for full-day kindergarten at their Corvallis elementary school this year.




Nationwide, nearly two-thirds of kindergartners are in school for a full day.