No escaping school fees case

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge drew a bright line Wednesday on Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal of shifting control over education decisions from Sacramento to local districts. What the state can’t do is pawn off its constitutional duty ensuring that California’s children get their fundamental right to a free education, Judge Carl West indicated in a terse tentative ruling. He is expected to elaborate on and finalize the ruling within the next few days. (Update: Judge West issued his final decision, confirming his tentative ruling, this morning. The state has 20 days to respond to his finding.)

The ruling marks a clear victory for plaintiffs who had sued the state and state education officials for failing to crack down on school districts that illegally charge students school fees ranging from payments for sports uniforms and textbooks to lab materials and AP tests. It’s a common practice that has become more prevalent as budget-strapped districts have sought ways to save money – often at the expense of low-income families that can’t afford the extra fees.

State officials didn’t dispute that these violations have occurred; the ACLU of Southern California had presented indisputable documentation. But, reversing the conciliatory position of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Brown administration argued that the state, the State Board of Education, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the State Department of Education – all named in the lawsuit –  had no enforcement responsibility. If there are violations, sue the local districts, which have the power and authority to fix the problem, argued the Attorney General’s office on behalf of state officials.

But West didn’t buy it and cited a 20-year-old state Supreme Court decision (Butt v. State of California) that reaffirmed that the state bears the responsibility to see that districts provide an equal opportunity to an education.

West’s expected final ruling will mean that the class-action lawsuit that the ACLU filed two years ago on behalf of unnamed students will go to trial – which Schwarzenegger, in his final days as governor, had hoped to avoid through a settlement. Schwarzenegger encouraged the passage of AB 165, sponsored by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-South Gate). It would have created a complaint process for parents and students who believed they had been charged illegal fees, and would have required districts to conduct annual compliance audits. If auditors concluded that a school district had charged illegal fees, it would be required to reimburse parents. The monitoring was modeled after terms in the Williams v. State of California lawsuit, which Schwarzenegger had also settled out of court, ensuring low-income schools had certificated teachers, clean buildings, and adequate textbooks.

AB 165 passed the Assembly 51-24 and the Senate 23-15 last fall. But Brown vetoed it, saying it took “the wrong approach” to district compliance. It “would mandate that every single classroom in California post a detailed notice and that all 1,042 school districts and over 1,200 charter schools follow specific complaint, hearing and audit procedures, even when there have been no complaints, let alone any evidence of violation. This goes too far.”

Case law and evidence will not be on the state’s side in a full trial. In the 1984 decision, Hartzell v. Connell, the state Supreme Court ruled that that districts must cover the costs of school-sponsored activities as well as regular academic classes. Allowable charges are few, such as arts materials that students take home.

Assuming a quick verdict, Brown could negotiate different terms for a monitoring system, or perhaps the State Board and Department of Education could establish monitoring through regulations.

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.