State to monitor ban on fees

Strapped-for-cash school districts will no longer be able to try to balance their budgets on the backs of students through charges and fees.

The ACLU of Southern California announced a settlement Thursday with the state over a suit that attorneys had filed on behalf of families illegally billed, sometimes for hundreds of dollars, for a range of things: books, course materials, lab costs, lockers, musical instruments, sports fees, uniforms. The encompassing agreement calls on the state to monitor school distircts for violations, create a complaint system to reimburse families for improper charges, and post notices of new state regulations in schools. The annual district audit will now certify that the district adhered to the requirements.

The merits of the case were never an issue. Students are entitled to a free public education, and the state Supreme Court ruled a quarter-century ago, in Hartzell v. Connell, that this must include the full costs not only of regular academic classes but also school-sponsored extracurricular activities.Waivers for families that can’t afford the fees aren’t allowed  as an alternative. Examples of permissible charges are few and very narrow: materials for items that students make and take home with them, deposits for instruments on loan, school-provided accident insurance for sports.

“This is a historic settlement that puts an end once and for all to the pay-to-learn system,” said Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU’s chief counsel.

The suit was settled unusually quickly – within three months of filing in early September. Court approval of the details is expected later this month.

Rosenbaum credited Gov. Schwarzenegger, his secretary of education Bonnie Reiss, and Attorney General and soon-to-be Governor Jerry Brown for quickly recognizing the state’s responsibility and earnestly working on ways to live up to it.

There are parallels in this case to the Williams lawsuit, which the ACLU filed a decade ago on behalf of low-income students attending rundown schools with unqualified teachers and insufficient supplies. Rather than fight the lawsuit, as his predecessor Gray Davis had, Schwarzenegger quickly struck a deal that included a complaint process and monitoring system. Now, he leaves office settling a suit with similar provisions (He continues, however, to fight the biggest, most important suit, Robles-Wong v California, over the basic adequacy of education funding. A hearing on that begins this morning in Superior Court in Oakland.).

Rosenbaum and the ACLU didn’t have to look hard, once the illegal school fees were brought to his attention, to find examples. Within weeks, interns had documented fees published on four dozen district web sites. They included $150 for lab fees for biology and chemistry in Irvine, $20 to $50 for foreign language workbooks in San Ramon Valley, and a $75 to $100 “fair share” fee for participating in ABC Unified.

It wasn’t just the amounts but examples of embarrassment and harassment that the ACLU discovered once the suit was filed. One girl was stopped in the middle of an AP exam and told to pay the money owed, Rosenbaum said. A teacher in Spanish class wrote the name on the blackboard of a girl whose family said it could not afford the cost of a workbook.

Within two weeks of the final court order, the state will send a letter detailing the ban on fees and charges to every superintendent and county education office. The settlement includes specific language of proposed amendments to the Ed Code and regulations that the State Board of Education must adopt. They must be enacted this year, or the settlement is off.

Rosenbaum said he has spoken with Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and is confident the Legislature will pass the legislation.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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