Many parents of special needs children are caught off guard when a school district tells them they will be charged a fee for copies of their child’s student records. After all, isn’t public education, particularly for special education students, supposed to be free? Is it legal for school districts to charge for copies of a special education student’s file?

The short answer is, yes, school districts may charge a reasonable fee that does not exceed the actual copying costs, so long as the fee does not prevent the parent from exercising his or her right to receive the records. If parents cannot afford the copy fee, the copies must be provided at no cost. The district should have a written policy regarding copy costs, and you should request a copy of this policy if asked to pay a fee.

You can download a sample Student File Request letter here: Request for Student File Letter

As parents of special needs children are well aware, special education means specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parent, to meet the unique needs of a child with disabilities. The words, “at no cost,” however, does not preclude “incidental fees that are normally charged to nondisabled students or their parents as a part of the regular education program.” [34 C.F.R. Sec. 300.39(b)(1).]

California school districts are allowed by state law to charge a reasonable copying fee. California Education Code Section 49065, for example, states:

Any school district may make a reasonable charge in an amount not to exceed the actual cost of furnishing copies of any pupil record; provided, however, that no charge shall be made for furnishing (1) up to two transcripts of former pupils’ records or (2) up to two verifications of various records of former pupils. No charge may be made to search for or to retrieve any pupil record.

California Education Code Section 56504 further states:

The parent shall have the right and opportunity to examine all school records of his or her child and to receive copies pursuant to this section and to Section 49065 within five business days after the request is made by the parent, either orally or in writing. The public agency shall comply with a request for school records without unnecessary delay before any meeting regarding an individualized education program or any hearing pursuant to Section 300.121, 300.301, 300.304, or 300.507 of Title 34 of the Code of Federal Regulations or resolution session pursuant to Section 300.510 of Title 34 of the Code of Federal Regulations and in no case more than five business days after the request is made orally or in writing. The parent shall have the right to a response from the public agency to reasonable requests for explanations and interpretations of the records. If a school record includes information on more than one pupil, the parents of those pupils have the right to inspect and review only the information relating to their child or to be informed of that specific information. A public agency shall provide a parent, on request of the parent, a list of the types and locations of school records collected, maintained, or used by the agency. A public agency may charge no more than the actual cost of reproducing the records, but if this cost effectively prevents the parent from exercising the right to receive the copy or copies, the copy or copies shall be reproduced at no cost.

School districts, therefore, can charge a reasonable copy fee that does not exceed actual copying costs, and only if parents can afford the fee. So what is a reasonable copying fee? I’ve seen school districts quote 5, 10, and as much as 15 cents per page. These “flat” rates are unlikely to reflect the district’s “actual” costs. Actual costs would be limited to what the district actually pays for a sheet of paper multiplied by the number of pages the parent receives, and perhaps the pro-rata cost to the district to pay a clerical staff member to make the copies.

For example, if a 500 sheet ream of paper costs the district $5.00, each page is worth 1 cent. If their lowest level clerical staff person is paid $9.00 per hour, each minute of that person’s time is worth 15 cents. Putting these two variables together, the total cost of 200 pages at 30 minutes of clerical time would be $6.50 ($2.00 for the pages plus $4.50 for the district staff member’s time). In contrast, under the “flat” rates, parents would be charged $10 at 5 cents per page, $20 at 10 cents per page, and $30 at 15 cents per page.