|Godwin Ronquillo Attorney Marcos Ronquillo quoted in Dallas Morning News article |
Tuition and fee waivers denied firefighter at University of Texas at Arlington
|August 26, 2011 6:00 am|
Dallas Morning News:
As a firefighter with Dallas Fire-Rescue, Cristian Hinojosa has done several jobs. He's been a paramedic, driver, engineer and full-time student.
But a few years ago, Hinojosa realized that he needed to train for the jobs he hopes to hold in the future. He enrolled in a master of public administration program at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Credentialed law enforcement and firefighters qualify for college tuition and lab fee waivers in some fields of study, according to the Texas Education Code. Hinojosa thought that surely his degree would qualify. After all, UTA touts the program online for "those entering management careers in government."
"I aspire to hold a leadership role eventually in public service, and I noticed that many leaders in the fire and police departments have this degree. It's absolutely relevant to my career," said Hinojosa, who holds undergraduate degrees from Amherst College in psychology and Spanish.
But he has learned a hard lesson outside of the classroom: UTA won't waive tuition and fees for firefighters working on a public administration degree, despite a Texas attorney general's opinion that appears to say the degree should qualify for the tuition exemption. The opinion was issued in 2006 for a state senator who asked what courses could qualify, since some schools were "narrowly defining" the curriculum.
"As a result, firefighters who take courses towards a fire engineering degree or who are taking courses in emergency management or the like outside of a strict fire science curriculum are being denied the tuition and fee exemption," the opinion states.
"Most people will give deference to an AG's opinion — most folks do," said Marcos Ronquillo, a Dallas attorney specializing in public law with Godwin Ronquillo. But the opinion is only "guidance," he said. "You're going to need a court to decide one way or another."
Hinojosa said he's undecided whether to pursue that course. He doesn't have the financial resources to file a lawsuit. Only nine hours short of his degree, he would have to get the tuition he's already paid reimbursed to make it worth his while. Still, he believes the outcome could benefit other firefighters.
"I'm enrolled in the UTA program for the specific reason of furthering my education to serve my community through the fire department," he said. "Basically, I thought the law is the law. It bugs us [firefighters] when it's followed arbitrarily."
Wording that governs firefighter tuition exemptions
What the Texas Education Code (section 54.208) says about tuition exemptions for qualifying professional or volunteer firefighters:
What's covered: According to the code, "The governing board of an institution of higher education shall exempt from the payment of tuition and laboratory fees any student enrolled in one or more courses offered as part of a fire science curriculum."
Not covered: The exemption "does not apply to deposits that may be required in the nature of security for the return or proper care of property loaned for the use of students."
Good grades: Qualifying students can continue to receive the exemption "only if the student makes satisfactory academic progress toward a degree or certificate at that institution …"
Legal interpretation: A 2006 opinion by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott states that "fire science" is a "technical term that refers to a course that falls within a designated fire science curriculum, as well as a course that is primarily related to fire service, emergency medicine, emergency management, or public administration, regardless of whether that course falls within a curriculum designated as ‘fire science.'"
SOURCES: Texas Education Code; Dallas Morning News research
©2011, The Dallas Morning News, Inc.
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