Calif. Bill Aims to Keep K-12 Education Free

Crime, Law and JusticeLaws and LegislationJustice SystemPoliticsAmerican Civil Liberties UnionRicardo Lara

SACRAMENTO -- Not every proposed law is historic or sweeping. Some merely are pretty good ideas — perhaps even important for a low-income kid.

One such bill is among the hundreds awaiting action as the Legislature heads into its final month. The measure's goal is to stop schools from socking students with illegal fees.

Fees for sports and field trips and textbooks and art, for example.

They're being charged despite a guarantee in the California Constitution of a free K-12 education.

"Access to public education is a right enjoyed by all — not a commodity for sale," the California Supreme Court ruled in 1984. "Educational opportunities must be provided to all students without regard to their families' ability or willingness to pay fees….

"This fundamental feature of public education is not contingent upon the inevitably fluctuating financial health of local school districts. A solution to those financial difficulties must be found elsewhere."

Nevertheless, according to a pending lawsuit filed two years ago by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, "the state has done nothing as its public school districts blatantly violate the free school guarantee by requiring students to pay fees and purchase assigned materials for credit courses."

"Basically," says ACLU chief counsel Mark Rosenbaum, "the state is balancing the budget on the backpacks of kids."

The state Department of Education, a defendant in the suit, even last year prepared a detailed memo advising which fees are legal and which illegal. But it seems to have been widely ignored by many schools.

"Some of these school districts, I understand they're in a difficult situation," says Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens.) "God knows the state hasn't helped the school districts in terms of funding the education system.

"But what some schools are charging in fees is against the law."

And nobody apparently is enforcing the law.

"We find it perverse," says ACLU attorney Brooks Allen, "that the only mechanism to enforce the constitutional right of a student who can't afford a textbook is to go out and hire a lawyer.

"We want the state to have a role."

It's not just the principle of a free public education that is at stake. It's also the practical effect of stigmatizing and humiliating poor kids who can't afford the teacher's demand to kick in money for a program.

And if they're denied the same materials or participation granted better-off students, the children of struggling families are left behind in an academic disadvantage.

Lara is pushing a bill (AB 1575) that would create a formal complaint process for parents who thought their kids had been charged fees illegally. They could appeal to the school principal and, ultimately, the state Board of Education.

The state superintendent of public instruction also would be required to periodically advise schools about what's legal and what's not. And schools would need to update their fee policies.

Pretty mild stuff, it would seem. But this sort of thing invariably is resisted by administrators and bureaucrats leery of being forced to move out of their comfort zones.

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar Lara bill last year. He contended it went "too far."

It would have required the posting of a notice specifying legal and illegal fees in each classroom — like a workplace job safety notice — and mandated frequent auditing.

The current bill has been toned down. Negotiations are underway between the bill's sponsors and the governor's office. Brown has not taken a position on the new measure. Neither has state schools chief Tom Torlakson.

The bill, strongly backed by Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles), passed the lower house and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The immediate goal of both sides — the ACLU and the government, particularly education officials — is to enact legislation that would render the lawsuit moot.

The suit was filed after some parents complained to the ACLU. The organization then documented more than 50 school districts requiring pupils to cough up for textbooks, novels, science materials, P.E. uniforms, art classes, advanced placement exams and the like — for both classroom and extracurricular activities.

Plaintiff "Jane's Spanish teacher wrote her name on the class whiteboard because she could not pay for assigned workbooks," the ACLU complaint charged.

Also, her middle school "required that Jane [not her real name] pay more than $440 annually in course and uniform fees for her physical education class and musical instrument rental fees…

"In some classes, teachers made grades partially dependent on the students' payment of course fees or awarded extra credit to students who bought $20 T-shirts."

Some students who couldn't afford books were issued school copies, but they had to be read in the library and couldn't be marked up. No taking them home.

The defendants asked a judge to dismiss the case. He refused. Subpoenas have been issued to 25 school districts ordering them to appear in court and explain their fee practices. The hearing is expected to be delayed until after the legislative session ends.

A report produced last year by UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access found that "California's high schools increasingly are calling upon families to pay for services that had previously been covered by the school….

"As high schools shift costs to families, inequality between schools often grows."

A new school year starts soon. The Legislature and the governor should unequivocally tell principals that the state Supreme Court had it right 28 years ago: They should look for money someplace besides students' pockets.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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