It's a nagging question that won't go away: When local school officials and their district-level administrators charge fees for classes and extracurricular activities despite a statewide ban on such practices, who is responsible for stepping in?
Is it the state, which sets education policy and guidelines, certifies the public school systems' teachers, creates the curriculum and provides the funding?
If so, then why haven't state officials intervened?
These oversight concerns form the basis of the class action lawsuit filed in Los Angeles on Friday by the American Civil Liberties Union. The civil liberties organization is accusing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of failing to crack down on school districts imposing illegal fees.
ACLU says it has found 40 school districts across California whose schools openly list fees on their websites for courses including art, home economics and music, forand for materials including gym uniforms. According to the suit, in one incident, a student’s Spanish teacher humiliated her because she could not pay for assigned workbooks. Another student, who requested anonymity, was required to pay for a workbook for English class, foreign language workbooks, science lab manuals and a school-issued agenda, which he could not afford.
ACLU is asking for a court order to force the state to enforce the law on illegal fees. The organization said they will send letters to school districts telling them about the legal action in hopes of dissuading them from imposing illegal fees during the current school year.
“School districts know they cannot charge students for an education; this practice was struck down by the California Supreme Court in 1984,” said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU/SC. “The court said no to pay-to-play then, and it should be no different now.”
Schwarzenegger spokesman Matt Connelly told the Associated Press that the administration will "carefully review the lawsuit to see if the fees in question violate California's constitutional guarantee to a free K-12 education."
Tina Jung, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, told California Watch: "We deeply sympathize with school districts in the state that have been hit really hard by the economy and state budget crisis, and that feel they need to raise funds in this way. However it would be inappropriate to comment on the lawsuit because CDE is not a party to the suit."
ACLU started probing the charging practices in August after a San Diego Union-Tribune investigation found schools openly charging fees despite a recent local grand jury investigation that slammed the practice.
Michael P. Griffith, a school finance analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan research center based in Denver, told the New York Times that ACLU's complaint could trigger others across the nation to ask courts to examine their states' educational charges.
What’s new here is that this is not about funding levels for education, but about whether districts are charging kids to get a public education,” Mr. Griffith said. “That’s a brand-new argument. I wouldn’t be surprised to see groups in other states adopt the same line of reasoning.
San Diego superintendent Bill Kowba agreed that the practice was wrong and said the district will cease charging the fees and offer refunds where appropriate. Los Angeles Unified began demanding a $24 donation from parents to continue busing athletes to games, but nixed the idea after news accounts sparked outrage.
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. In the case Hartzell v. Connell, the judges wrote:
This court recognizes that, due to legal limitations on taxation and spending, school districts do indeed operate under difficult financial constraints. However, financial hardship is no defense to a violation of the free school guarantee.
… Educational opportunities must be provided to all students without regard to their families' ability or willingness to pay fees or request special waivers. 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, for example, through the political process.