Recently, the Ohio Attorney General’s office (OAG) was asked to provide clarification regarding a district’s tuition obligation for adult students who “support themselves by their own labor.” Since this phrase is not currently defined by law, the OAG was asked for an opinion on its meaning. But before we delve too far into the opinion, some additional background information may be in order.
In general, under Ohio law, children are entitled to attend school in the district of their parents’ residence without an obligation to pay tuition. There are exceptions to this general rule, including a long list of factual circumstances that, if met, prohibit the school district of the individual student (as opposed to the district of their parents’ residence) from charging tuition. This list includes children who are under eighteen and married, children who have a parent serving outside Ohio in the U.S. military, and children who are homeless. Of particular relevance here though, is the language that states:
“All persons at least eighteen but under twenty-two years of age who live apart from their parents, support themselves by their own labor, and have not successfully completed the high school curriculum or the individualized education program developed for the person by the high school…are entitled to attend school in the district in which they reside.”
The absence of a statutory definition of what constitutes “supporting themselves by their own labor” has led districts to apply this phrase inconsistently. For example, if a 20-year-old student provides school authorities with an employer paycheck or a statement submitted by the head-of-household declaring that the adult student supports himself by performing chores in the residence, does that satisfy the “support themselves by their own labor” requirement? The answer was unclear.
In the opinion, the OAG found that the phrase “support themselves by their own labor” means “providing one’s own necessities of life, such as food, shelter, and clothing, by means of one’s own work.” In order to meet this requirement, students must not be dependent on their parents (or others) for financing or furnishing the necessities of human existence.
The OAG recognized that students may support themselves in different ways (e.g., wages, compensation, imputed income, compensation in kind, etc.) and highlighted that the language does not limit its application to labor that is characterized by a particular manner of compensation. Additionally, the OAG found that a paycheck alone does not demonstrate self-sufficiency, unless the amount of the paycheck “enables the person to pay independently all the costs associated with providing the necessities of life consistent with the standard of living enjoyed by that person.” Similarly, just because the adult student is self-supporting by performing chores does not necessarily mean the adult student is supporting himself by his own labor. In order to make that determination, the OAG opined that it would be necessary to look into the nature of the chores performed and the relative value of the completion of the chores to the head-of-household, as well as any other factors relevant to the student’s living situation.
The OAG avoided defining the phrase so rigidly as to apply to every factual situation, or even in a manner that ensured uniform application throughout Ohio. The opinion suggests that the decision of whether individual students supported themselves by their own labor needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis, looking into the specific evidence of the students’ work, compensation, and standard of living.
For more information about attendance, tuition and custody issues, please join us August 1 for our annual Attendance, Tuition and Custody law workshop. Among other topics, the workshop will include a session that specifically discusses issues of adult student attendance and non-attendance. To register for the workshop, please visit www.ohioschoolboards.org/workshops or email Laurie Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.