Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union settled a lawsuit accusing the Schwarzenegger administration of allowing school districts to charge students illegal fees for classes and extracurricular activities. The agreement with the state was touted as a victory for parents and the poor.
Yet a key parent advocate and whistleblower against the fees says school districts are simply changing their tactics to continue collecting fees. In a letter sent last week to Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, attorney Sally Smith says she's learned that San Diego Unified's Mira Mesa High School blocked ceramics students from firing clay art pieces unless they had paid a "material donation" charge of $20. Mira Mesa and others, according to documents reviewed by California Watch, are requiring students and parents to sign accountability contracts stating they "understand about the $20 material donation."
One parent told Smith that non-paying students were made to lump their clay and return it, while the paying students were allowed to take their completed projects home. The accountability contracts don't say that such donations are optional and can't be made mandatory by law.
Smith's letter states:
Districts are using this law to justify collections of fees for clay, art paper, other art supplies and even science experiments. The schools list MATERIAL DONATION for these classes which indigent students will not enroll if they know there will be a fee.
This is a two-tier educational system. ... As a parent I know the intimidation felt when educators expect/collect money in the classroom and this is an inappropriate method of collecting fees.
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.
The ACLU started probing the charging practices in August after numerous media reports, including California Watch, revealed schools openly charging fees in apparent disregard of a San Diego grand jury investigation that slammed the practice. In September, the ACLU sued the state, saying it had found 40 school districts across California whose schools openly list fees on their websites for courses including art, home economics and music; for and 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.
Last month, the organization announced a settlement with the state. The agreement requires the passage of new laws that would require school districts to fully reimburse families for any costs or face financial penalty if auditors find that students were charged an illegal fee. The settlement also grants parents the right to challenge any illegal fees through a complaint process setup by the state.
So far in 2011, no legislation has been filed to address the settlement. Smith said she sent the letter to Assemblyman Lara in hopes that a bill could be crafted to end the practices, once and for all. She said the ability for individual teachers and principals to levy charges without going in front of the school board amounts to a secret tax against families.
"The ACLU settlement doesn't go far enough," Smith said. "Hopefully those weaknesses can be hammered out before legislation is created."