ACLU sues California for allowing school districts to charge fees

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the state of California on Friday for allowing school districts to charge students for books, uniforms, classes and other basic supplies.

The suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleges that more than 30 districts require students and their families to pay for basic supplies that are supposed to be provided at no cost. Districts cited in the lawsuit include Beverly Hills, Burbank and Long Beach.

The Los Angeles Unified School District was not named in the suit, although “we have heard anecdotal reports about Los Angeles,” Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU of Southern California, said at a morning news conference.

“Free public schools are the linchpin of our democracy,” he said. “What we have are ‘pay-to-learn’ schools.”

A spokesman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was named as a defendant, said the administration would carefully review the suit.

A spokesman for Long Beach Unified said administrators have reviewed the district’s policy and believe it complies with state law. Burbank Unified officials have not reviewed the complaint and could not comment, an administrator said.

A spokesman for L.A. Unified said the district prohibits charging for books, uniforms or supplies. Supt. Ramon C. Cortines recently canceled a plan to request a voluntary $24 fee from students participating on sports teams.

The ACLU suit was brought on behalf of two Orange County high school students, identified by the pseudonyms Jane Doe and Jason Roe, and their families.

The suit alleges that the student identified as Jane was required to pay a fee to enroll in classes and get books. The principal told the girl’s father that the fees would be waived, but she did not receive textbooks in a timely fashion and was embarrassed when she was singled out by teachers for not having the books, the suit states.

The second student, “Jason,” also was required to pay fees for classroom materials, according to the complaint. His family was forced to choose between items because they could not afford all of them, the suit alleges.

Attorneys compiled the list of districts that charge fees by looking at their schools’ websites and said they believed many more have similar, illegal practices.

“We did nothing more than a rough survey,” Rosenbaum said.

The San Diego and Northern California branches of the ACLU and attorneys with Morrison & Foerster were also part of the suit.