Friday, December 10, 2010
ACLU, State Reach Settlement in ‘Pay to Learn’ Lawsuit
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The State of California and the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday announced a settlement in a suit alleging that local school districts illegally charged fees for educational activities and materials in violation of the right to a free and equal public education in California.
California affiliates of the ACLU said the settlement will establish a comprehensive monitoring and enforcement system to ensure school districts do not unlawfully charge fees to students for educational activities.
The groups sued the state in September in the Los Angeles Superior Court following an investigation that uncovered a widespread practice among school districts of forcing students to purchase textbooks, workbooks, and assigned novels in order to matriculate in academic courses.
Under the settlement, which requires court approval, the state has agreed to send guidance regarding student fees to all county and district superintendents and charter school administrators reminding them that public education will be provided to all students without regard to their families’ ability or willingness to pay fees. The state will pursue legislation confirming that districts should not charge fees for educational activities, and spelling out the types of services that must be provided to all students free of any charge.
The legislation will also mandate that audits of local education agencies specifically include a review of whether districts are illegally charging educational fees. It would empower students and parents to use the existing Williams Uniform Complaint Process to identify and receive reimbursement for illegal school fees and would amend the annual independent audits of school districts to determine if schools collected illegal fees.
Under the legislation, if auditors find a district charged illegal fees, the district would be required to fully reimburse parents or suffer a financial penalty. Parents would also be able to challenge illegal fees immediately through the complaint process that provides for local resolution within 30 working days.
“Every California student has the right to not only a quality public education, but a free public education,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said yesterday. “Our state has promised that to our students, and I am grateful to the ACLU for bringing the issue of these illegal fees to light….I am proud of the settlement we have reached, and assure all California parents and students that the State will do its part to make sure every school district knows it is illegal to charge students fees for attending public schools.”
State Controller John Chiang commented:
“Our public schools aren’t free if students are being nickel-and-dimed for the tools required to learn….My office is committed to providing the auditing direction necessary to enforce this settlement and ensure that California public schools do not charge unlawful fees.”
Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California, called the deal “a historic settlement that puts an end once and for all to the pay to learn system.” He said it meant that “all students have an equal opportunity to achieve their dreams irrespective of their families’ financial circumstances.”
Rosenbaum thanked Schwarzenegger, Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss and the State Board of Education for facilitating a quick resolution of the case.
In addition to the other allegations, the suit also claimed that school districts charged lab fees for participation in science classes, and alleged that the practice discriminated against lower-income children, creating an unfair system where only the wealthy were able to afford an education the California Constitution says should be free to all regardless of economic status.
One example cited a high school student in Orange County who was allegedly required to buy foreign language and English workbooks, science lab manuals, a school-issued agenda and organizer and a physical education uniform. The student and his family were unable to purchase all of the required course materials, and the school refused to waive the fees.
The ACLU of Southern California was joined in the case by its affiliates in Northern California and San Diego and Imperial Counties. Law firm Morrison & Foerster served as co-counsel to the plaintiffs.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company