Priceless: Free cost of education

Graphing calculator for your child’s algebra class: $120. Your daughter’s cheerleader uniforms: $1,000. Lab fees for AP physics: $150. Being required to purchase these items by your child’s school: Unconstitutional.

It’s been nearly a year to the day since the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit against the State of California and former Gov. Schwarzenegger for not stopping school districts from charging fees for everything from field trips to textbooks, and from band uniforms to art supplies.

A bill on Gov. Brown’s desk would essentially settle the lawsuit. AB 165 by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-South Gate) would create a complaint process for parents and students who believe they’re being charged illegal fees. It would also require districts to conduct annual compliance audits.

Humiliation in school

An informal investigation by the ACLU, compiled in a paper called Pay-To-Learn, found at least 45 school districts that were charging students for textbooks, workbooks, even novels for English class. Students who couldn’t afford them were often publicly embarrassed.

“Our clients had their names put up on the board and were singled out. It was really pretty shocking. They would be humiliated for not buying textbooks,” said Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy for the ACLU of Southern California.

In a YouTube video, one of the student plaintiffs, known as Jason Roe in the lawsuit, describes what happened when he didn’t have the money to buy a textbook. He said when the teacher asked the students to take out their books and noticed he didn’t have one, she asked, “Have you paid for one yet And I said, ‘No.’ She said that in front of the whole class and it didn’t feel too great.”

Roe said he also had his grade docked in Spanish because his notebook wasn’t the brand the teacher wanted the students to buy; his was less expensive. And when he couldn’t afford a compass for math class, the teacher offered to rent him one for $2.50 a week.

Districts should know better

ACLU attorneys say Article 9, section 5 of the California Constitution is unequivocal with regard to charging for public school.

“The Legislature shall provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each district at least six months in every year, after the first year in which a school has been established.”

But just in case that’s too vague, the State Supreme Court clarified the intent. In 1984, in the case Hartzell v. Connell, former Chief Justice Rose Bird wrote: “The free school guarantee lifts budgetary decisions concerning public education out of the individual family setting and requires that such decisions be made by the community as a whole. Once the community has decided that a particular educational program is important enough to be offered by its public schools, a student’s participation in that program cannot be made to depend upon his or her family’s decision whether to pay a fee or buy a toaster.”

Still, there has been confusion over legal language and nuances. “The real issue is how things were stated,” said Steve Bolman, interim Superintendent of Petaluma Joint Union High School District. One of their schools was on the ACLU list for charging for choir robes. “Can parents be requested to make donations to support activities?”

The answer is yes, as long as they’re not strong-armed into it.

“Like many districts across the state we had well meaning parents, booster groups, and even teachers who maybe didn’t have clear guidance,” said Marcus Walton, communications director for the Capistrano Unified School District, which was also cited by the ACLU.

Since then, said Walton, administrators have been writing new guidelines for staff and fundraising groups. But some issues are so specific they make splitting hairs seem simple. For example: Two art students fire their clay sculptures. One takes the sculpture home, the other leaves it at school. Does the student who takes it home have to pay for the clay? Walton says yes.

Even if Gov. Brown signs the bill, Walton may be right in thinking that many of these questions will “have to be handled on a classroom to classroom basis.”

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *