Filling out school registration forms isn't the most scintillating activity — there were 31 separate items to check off my son's list — so it's understandable if parents' eyes tend to glaze over while completing the task.
Is so, they might have missed the following item included in registration materials:
"All extra-curricular activities (including athletics) within NMUSD operate free of charge to all of our students. While donations or contributions may be requested, there is no connection to a student's ability to participate and their ability/willingness to contribute financially."
That should be obvious. All children in California are guaranteed access to a free public education, therefore, families cannot be required to pay for schoolbooks, classroom supplies and equipment.
As the disclaimer indicates, that right extends to extracurricular activities such as sports, music and dance programs. No child should be restricted from participating in any school-related function because of a failure to pay.
Yet what should be clear is anything but.
Throughout the state, lapses occur routinely in the free-education mandate, as parents are continually expected to cough up funds for school activities, both in and outside the classroom. Despite declarations such as the one found in Newport-Mesa Unified registration packets, parents are repeatedly pressured by these deeply entrenched "pay to play" practices.
A legislative attempt to fix the problem failed last year. In October, Gov. Jerry Brown surprised many observers by rejecting Assembly Bill 165, a bill that would have subjected schools to annual audits to ensure that they were in compliance with the free-education guarantee. It also would have required schools to post notices in each classroom regarding the no-fee policy, and imposed stiff fines if violations were found.
The legislation arose in part out of court ruling on an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that charged the state with essentially ignoring its responsibilities as school districts continually violate the free-education guarantee.
Brown said the bill took the "wrong approach," and went "too far" with its system of audits and penalties.
Bill supporters, including its author, Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), believe the state still needs to address the issue. So Lara is back with another bill, Assembly Bill 1575, a softer version of its predecessor.
The new bill would create a formal complaint and appeals process for parents to challenge allegedly illegal fees. The state would be required to notify schools regularly regarding what's legal or not, and schools would have to update their policies.
This isn't exactly radical stuff, but even the watered-down legislation is facing some headwinds, in part because it sniffs of added bureaucracy. Also, any measure that would further burden our cash-starved schools is bound to be controversial.
I scream as loud as anyone when it comes to the subject of our grossly underfunded schools. California's public education system is a hot mess, a victim of the state's dysfunctional government and funding policies.
Districts throughout the state are on the verge of collapse, and even relatively healthy Newport-Mesa Unified — "relative" is the operative word here — could soon be facing another round of painful cuts.
So why impose more strictures on our beleaguered schools at a time when they're struggling to make do with much less?
Because the right thing to do is still right, even when the timing is tough.
I can't attest to whether A.B. 1575 has achieved the correct medicinal mix for fixing the egregious violations of the free-education guarantee. But there's no question that the problem needs to be addressed, and advocates of the change have garnered enough momentum now to at least force some compromise.
I have no problem donating to schools. When asked, I happily agree to throw in a few bucks for teachers' supplies — they certainly need all the help they can get — and I've spent a shocking amount of money on books, calculators and other school items. I contribute the so-called "fair share" to my son's sports team, and buy all his gear and uniform pieces.
I do all this because I can, but I should not be made to feel as if my son would be penalized if I could not. For throughout the state, and here in Newport-Mesa, there are struggling families for whom such payments pose a significant hardship. Yet the coercion often continues with little if any redress.
The parents in those families love their kids just as much as I love mine, and they should not be subject to discrimination of any sort. Many schools have gotten away with skirting the promise of equal access to a free education for all children for too long.
Put another way, what hope do we have of ever reversing the disastrous, decades-long plundering of our public schools if we can't even solve this relatively manageable problem? Is the steady drip-drip of political inertia and ineffectual leadership all we can expect until the entire system implodes?
It's time to keep our promise to our children, fully and fairly. "Free" should really mean free.
PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times