American Civil Liberties Union affiliates in California have sued Gov. Schwarzenegger and the state over class fees, from textbooks to AP exams to gym uniforms, that dozens of school districts routinely charge students.
The class-action lawsuit, filed Friday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, charges that mandatory course-related fees violate the state constitution’s guarantee of a free public education and a state court decision, Hartzell vs. Connell, in 1984, also banning fees for other school activities, which districts appear to be ignoring.
The suit asks for an immediate injunction against charging students for any costs for credit courses and for the state to create regulations and an enforcement system to ensure districts comply. ACLU attorneys for student plaintiffs also plan to send cease-and-desist orders to the 32 school districts named in the lawsuit.
The list is far from comprehensive. The ACLU compiled it by surfing for fees on high school web sites. A sampling includes $125-$150 for lab fees at Northwood High in Irvine, $86 for AP exams that many high schools require as part of a student’s grade; $20 to $25 for arts courses in Arcadia High; $535 for a cosmetology class at Calaveras High; $20 for foreign language workbooks at Dougherty Valley High in San Ramon; and $5 for PE locker at Half Moon Bay High.
The 24-page complaint cites the cases of two unidentified plaintiffs. It alleges Jane Doe was embarrassed in class because she was late in paying fees while Jason Roe started school without a chemistry manual and a Spanish workbook because his family could afford only some of his fees. What the suit cannot determine is the number of low-income students who may have avoided college-required A-G courses because of fees or students who were less competitive in applying to college because they couldn’t afford fees for extracurricular activities, from band to sports. The suit doesn’t incorporate those activities, only credit courses.
Some schools have been charging fees for years; others have raised them recently in response to budget cutbacks.
Mark Rosenbaum, legal director for the ACLU-Southern California, said districts’ hardship is no excuse. “It’s in the worst times that students without means need to be protected,” he said in an interview. “And now is the time to say that the system of financing schools in California is broken and needs to be reformed.”
The ACLU’s action is the latest of several funding-related lawsuits filed this year. The state PTA, attorneys for poor students and associations representing school boards and school administers filed Robles-Wong vs California, challenging overall funding levels. Public Advocates, representing low-income students, filed a similar lawsuit. And Public Counsel Law Center has sued Los Angeles Unified over the disproportionately large teacher layoffs at low-income schools.
Some of the schools in the ACLU lawsuit make allowances for students who can’t afford course charges. But citing the Hartzell case, the complaint says, “a fee waiver for students who are unable to pay required fees or purchase assigned materials does not remedy the constitutional defect of such fees.”
Other schools refer to the charges as “requested contributions.” Rosenbaum said that new regulations would have to ensure that school fund-raising is not coercive and individuals who don’t make donations aren’t identified or singled out.