ACLU sues over HS course fees

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.

Wading through data on spending

Does California’s  school spending rank 28th or 43rd among the states? It depends if you factor in the relative cost of labor.

California’s per capita K-12 spending was above the national average, but its spending per student was $591 below the national average. Can both be true? Yes.

People will cite various figures and rankings on California’s school spending, depending on whether they want it to appear terrible or tolerable. In its latest report, How California Ranks, the non-partisan think tank EdSource makes sense of the numbers and puts them in context. The only problem is that the report uses figures for 2007-08, the latest school year available and the last year before the economic downtown that has hit California about the hardest in the nation. So the rankings will only get worse.

Readers have probably seen some of the data before — in this blog and elsewhere. How California Ranks is useful in explaining seeming contradictions. Except where noted, all of the following figures are for 2007-08:

Student spending: California spent $9,706 per student  from all sources of revenue (excluding capital expenditures). That was $591 less than the national average of $10,297 and $7,088 less than No. 1 New York’s $16,794 (correction: New Jersey was number 1 with $17,620). California ranked 28th among the states. But when adjusted for the average salary costs in each state, using a Comparable Wage Index developed by a Texas A&M professor and cited by EdWeek’s annual Quality Counts survey, the ranking drops to 43rd. Since about two-thirds of a district’s costs go to salaries, with an additional 15 percent for benefits,  the labor-adjusted figure is a fair measure.

Teacher salaries: At $65,808, California’s average teacher salary was the highest. Adjusted for labor costs, using the Comparable Wage Index,  it falls to $60,020. It’s still the second highest but somewhat closer to the national average. California is 50th in the nation in terms of teacher to student ratio.

Capacity to spend on education: California had  $242,011 in personal income per student. That ranked 20th in the nation and was $3,356 above the national average.

Per capita spending: California actually spent 6 percent more than the national average per state resident on K-12 education. This seeming contradiction can be explained by the fact that California has a higher proportion of children to adults, so the spending is spread out over proportionally more students.

Local and state taxes: In 2006-07, California was 14th in the nation in taxes it collected –  11.4 percent of personal income, mainly through  its relatively high personal income tax. But the $37 per $1,000 of personal income spent on K-12 schools ranked 39th. That’s because it spent proportionately more on prisons, police and fire protection (third highest in the nation), and on public health than other states.

Grand jury urges districts to merge

With school districts strapped for dollars and looking for pennies to pinch, the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury is urging smaller districts to consider one money-saving option that most won’t like: consolidation.

The Mercury News reported that the 19-member jury, an investigative body that issues advisory reports, estimates annual savings of $51 million if the county’s 31 school districts were unified and consolidated. “Achieving School District Efficiency Through Consolidation” recommended that small elementary feeder districts combine with four high school districts – Fremont Union, Mountain View-Los Altos, Los Gatos-Saratoga and Campbell Union – to form four K-12 districts.

Continue reading “Grand jury urges districts to merge”

Three decades of underfunding education

A new report by the California Budget Project – “Race to the Bottom? California’s Support for Schools Lags the Nation” – underscores what’s at stake in the coming battle  between Gov. Schwarzenegger and Democratic leaders on state education spending, a key difference in the stalemate over the state budget.

The report tracks 30 years of underfunding K-12 schools. Its conclusion: “The spending gap (between California and other states) widened after the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, narrowed from the late 1990s through 2001-02, and has grown substantially since 2006-07.”

Continue reading “Three decades of underfunding education”

Litigation alert: major funding suit to be filed today

The long-anticipated suit challenging California’s meager education funding will be formally announced and filed today.

The state PTA is joining the California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators in what could become the biggest school funding case since Serrano v Priest in the ‘70s overturned the state’s system of funding schools. The suit comes one week after Gov. Schwarzenegger  released a revised state budget that proposes spending 11 percent less on K-12 schools than four years ago.

Continue reading “Litigation alert: major funding suit to be filed today”

Commercial properties finagle out of property taxes

With state funding of K-12 schools stuck on empty for at least several more years, school districts and teachers unions are starting to sound the call for more local authority to raise taxes.

That’s not likely to happen, however, until the Legislature has the fortitude to confront the distortions caused by Proposition 13’s stranglehold on the state’s tax system. A new study by the California Tax Reform Association and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment adds evidence to begin that discussion.

Continue reading “Commercial properties finagle out of property taxes”

Spending flexibility, yes, but at whose expense?

In slashing education spending over the past two years, Gov. Schwarzenegger and the Legislature have given school districts more authority to choose how to spend their dwindling dollars. Sacramento has untied the strings on many “categorical programs” – those funded for specific purposes, such as buying textbooks and teaching civics education.

But, to an extent, equity has been sacrificed for flexibility: In many districts, programs primarily benefiting low-income, minority students – summer school, high school exit exam tutoring, community day schools – have been sacrificed to prevent further layoffs and keep the lights on for everyone.

Now there’s an opportunity to really get it right.

Continue reading “Spending flexibility, yes, but at whose expense?”

Full Circle Fund’s Rx for schools

Members of the Full Circle Fund, a Bay Area philanthropy made up of socially active leaders and entrepreneurs, has joined the call for giving school districts more autonomy and taxing authority.

Granting local voters the power to pass a limited surcharge of the property tax rate  is one policy recommendation of “EACH: A Vision for California’s Future.” The 11-page policy platform is the product of nine months of work by the 60-member Education Circle, one of four study groups within the Full Circle Fund.

A property surcharge would directly challenge of the limits imposed by Proposition 13.  It also could create equity problems – and likely lead to a lawsuit ­– since rich communities would more readily pass such a measure. So the Education Circle also urges establishing a state matching fund as an incentive for  low-wealth communities to raise revenue. The platform also urges bringing up California’s level of funding to the “national norm” and includes a useful graph  that compares states’  per student spending relative to its teachers’ salaries.

Continue reading “Full Circle Fund’s Rx for schools”

Now 46th in nation in per student funding

California is still knocking about the bottom in per student K-12 spending at 46th among  the states and Washington, D.C., according to Education Week’s much anticipated annual survey. That’s one better than the 47th ranking last year. It might have been spared 51st because Ed Week used data from 2007, before fiscal disaster struck.

Ed Week adjusts spending to reflect regional costs of living, which is one reason why high-cost California ranks so low.  In terms of unadjusted dollars, it ranked 24th, according to the last National Education Association survey.

Continue reading “Now 46th in nation in per student funding”