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Schools under fire from ACLU for 'pay-to-play' athletic fees

Flickr photo by L. E. MacDonald

The American Civil Liberties Union is stepping up the pressure on school districts that are violating state law by charging students to participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities.

Last week, ACLU legal director David Blair-Loy sent the San Diego Unified School District a letter asking for officials to stop several examples of "pay to play" that were found at local schools. The group also asked for the money collected to be refunded to the parents.

The request followed a San Diego Union-Tribune investigation that found schools openly charging fees on their websites, despite a recent local grand jury investigation that slammed the practice.

At a Friday press conference to address the issue, 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. Also on Friday, San Diego Unified made its student fee policies more visible and easier to access online. Kowba said during the 2 p.m. news conference:

I want to make it clear that we are very serious about public education being free. We are a very large district and are working hard to make clear to all teachers, principals, coaches and staff that public education is free with very few exceptions.

The focus on San Diego is part of a statewide probe ACLU is conducting on the practice.

The organization is also reviewing reports of improper fees at schools in Poway, Grossmont, San Dieguito, Sweetwater and Coronado, according to the Union-Tribune.

Days ago, 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. District Superintendent Ramon Cortines told the LA Daily News he was unaware of the proposal to charge athletes and didn't approve of the practice.

"I was livid this morning. … I was not aware of this," Cortines told the newspaper. "There may be schools where students and families can pay for this, but that won't be at every school. For me this is an issue of equity."

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.

Yet, as we wrote in February and in June, school districts have been disregarding this law and charging anyway. Numerous examples have surfaced with school districts pressuring children to "do their part" by paying hundreds and even thousands in dues for uniforms, locks, gym clothes, athletic "spirit packs" and musical instruments.

And to the frustration of cash-strapped parents, the state Department of Education had issued advice and guidance but appeared to be unwilling to compel districts to stop the practice. When California Watch asked the state education officials whether they could take action, we were told that the agency's in-house attorney advised them not to comment.

Ultimately, that's forcing some to take matters in their own hands.

In Clovis, a group of parents have filed suit against the district to try and stop it from continuing. And with the ACLU snooping too, more lawsuits could be on the horizon.

And we'd like to know if your district or school is engaging in pay to play. If so, please e-mail me at cjohnson@californiawatch.org.

ACLU Letter to San Diego Unified

Hartzell v. Connell


Filed under: K–12, Daily Report


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