Los Angeles Times

Lack of fees batters high school classes

The Glendale High School music program has long operated on a tight budget, held together in part by a $75 instrument rental fee that director Amy Rangel stretched to fund equipment repairs and other expenses.

The more than 100 students who borrow school-owned instruments each year paid, Rangel said, generating thousands of dollars. The handful that couldn’t were always accommodated.

But after the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California sued the state of California last year alleging that student fees violate a Constitutional mandate that public school districts provide free and equitable education to all, Rangel was forced to replace the rental fee with a voluntary contribution.

Four months into the school year, just six students have anted up, she said.

“We are basically having to ask for donations — which most families have chosen not to do — or fundraise,” Rangel said. “It is really rough. We are thousands of dollars behind.”

It is a story echoed by local choir directors, art teachers and culinary instructors who, once dependent on student fees to cover expenses, must now fundraise, pay out of pocket or, in some cases, do without.

Representatives for the ACLU say the lawsuit was filed to enforce existing state law and to ensure that all students have equal access to opportunities, and to draw attention to the deplorable level of funding for public education.

“We think it is important that everyone remembers, as our Constitution requires, access to educational activities isn’t limited based on family income,” said Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy with the ACLU of Southern California.

State legislation introduced in January that would have sharpened existing language on the issue was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October, derailing a potential settlement. Another hearing in the case is scheduled for next month, Allen said.

But in some ways the ACLU has already made its point. In November, the California Department of Education issued an advisory detailing laws that prohibit students fees. Districts have directed staff to take note.

“I think it certainly has brought some needed awareness to the existing law that all students, regardless of financial means, have full and equal access to all academic activities,” Allen said. “And that is a good thing.”

Many educators say they respect the spirit of the lawsuit, but added that enforcing the ban on student fees is limiting their ability to provide a high-quality learning experience.

Judy Shalhoub, who has taught culinary arts at Burbank High School for more than a decade, previously charged students $40, money that allowed her to stage demonstrations and food tastings. After changing her course guidelines this year to read “a donation would be appreciated,” just 49 of her 180 students contributed, Shalhoub said.

“Next year, I expect no one will pay,” she said.

Shalhoub has organized a food truck fundraiser set to launch Tuesday that she hopes will make up for the lost revenue. At least six food trucks will park at the Burbank High School basketball courts starting at 4:30 p.m., with 10% of their profits benefiting her program, Shalhoub said.

“I don’t feel resentful, I feel anxious and nervous,” she said of her new fundraising responsibilities. “I don’t know how much money I am going to get. I don’t know how long this gourmet food truck business is going to sustain us.”

Anne Burnett, who heads the speech and debate program at Burbank High, said that event fees sometimes can run as much as $20 per student. Unable to ask students for the money, she is currently covering those costs with funds leftover from last year.

Enforcing the ban on fees is exacerbating a common practice of teachers personally covering costs, Burnett said.

“When we run out of money, it will be out of my pocket; and it is not like we make a lot of money,” Burnett said.

Mathew Schick, director of instrumental music at Crescenta Valley High School, said his program coffers are $3,000 below where they were this time last year.

“We have to choose our words very carefully,” Schick said. “It has kind of made us paranoid, and that is sad, because it detracts from providing an experience for the kids. It adds one more thing to worry about when we teach.”

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times