School districts that violate the state's guarantee to a free education by illegally charging fees for classroom and extracurricular activities would have a portion of their annual budget withheld under newly proposed legislation.
The bill, authored by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, requires annual audits of school districts to make sure they are not making parents and children pay for uniforms, classroom materials and extra activities, like cheerleading.
For those districts that won't comply, the state controller will withhold 1 percent of their total funding for administrative costs. The money will not be released until a full reimbursement, with interest, is made to all parents, guardians and pupils for the violation, the bill states.
Lara's bill, AB 165, is the first attempt to add teeth to California's long standing decree that public school education is free. It comes in the wake of a recent settlement between the American Civil Liberties Union and the state of California over the matter.
The legislation also requires school districts to create a complaint process for parents. Under the process, if parents are unhappy with a decision by the school principal or superintendent, their concern about charges can be heard by the local school board and, if needed, the State Board of Education. All written grievances and responses created under the complaint process must be available to the public, upon request, the bill states.
The recent move to stamp out illegal fees has triggered strong reactions.
Earlier this month, Joseph Farley, superintendent of Capistrano Unified, sent out letters to parents, warning that the ban on fees would impact school district "traditions that go back many years." Farley's letter, dated Jan. 7, stated that the district would empanel a task force to examine and revise school policies. It also stated:
All supplies, athletic equipment, musical instruments, materials and uniforms, for curricular and extracurricular activities, must be provided to pupils free of charge.
The settlement agreement in this matter includes strict enforcement of this law and includes accompanying auditing provisions and penalties to guarantee its enforcement. This will have a major impact on practices in most California school districts.
In November, Clovis Unified paid three families $250,000 to settle a 2009 lawsuit over illegal fees. About $25,000 of the settlement was set aside for 18 months in case new allegations of illegal charges surfaced, according to the Fresno Bee.
Still, others have been slow to curb illegal practices. Weeks ago, a whistleblower accused several schools of not allowing non-paying students to participate in activities.
Pay-to-play has been illegal in California since April 1984. That year, the state Supreme Court ruled schools that charge children to participate in extracurricular activities violate the state's constitutional guarantee to a free education.