Sunday, September 18, 2011

PRICELESS: THE COST OF FREE PUBLIC EDUCATION: Bill would crackdown on illegal school fees

By Kathryn Baron, Thoughts on Public Education |

Posted on 9/14/11

Graphing calculator for your child’s algebra class: $120.

Your daughter’s cheerleader uniforms: $1,000.

Lab fees for AP physics: $150.

Being required to purchase these items by your child’s school: Unconstitutional.

It’s been nearly a year to the day since the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit against the State of California and former Gov. Schwarzenegger for not stopping school districts from charging fees for everything from field trips to textbooks, and from band uniforms to art supplies.

A bill on Gov. Brown’s desk would essentially settle the lawsuit. AB 165 by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-South Gate) would create a complaint process for parents and students who believe they’re being charged illegal fees. It would also require districts to conduct annual compliance audits.

Humiliation in school

An informal investigation by the ACLU, compiled in a paper called Pay-To-Learn, found at least 45 school districts that were charging students for textbooks, workbooks, even novels for English class. Students who couldn’t afford them were often publicly embarrassed.

“Our clients had their names put up on the board and were singled out. It was really pretty shocking. They would be humiliated for not buying textbooks,” said Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy for the ACLU of Southern California.

In a YouTube video, one of the student plaintiffs, known as Jason Roe in the lawsuit, describes what happened when he didn’t have the money to buy a textbook. He said when the teacher asked the students to take out their books and noticed he didn’t have one, she asked, “Have you paid for one yet And I said, ‘No.’ She said that in front of the whole class and it didn’t feel too great.”

Roe said he also had his grade docked in Spanish because his notebook wasn’t the brand the teacher wanted the students to buy; his was less expensive. And when he couldn’t afford a compass for math class, the teacher offered to rent him one for $2.50 a week.

Districts should know better

ACLU attorneys say Article 9, section 5 of the California Constitution is unequivocal with regard to charging for public school.

“The Legislature shall provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each district at least six months in every year, after the first year in which a school has been established.”

But just in case that’s too vague, the State Supreme Court clarified the intent. In 1984, in the case Hartzell v. Connell, former Chief Justice Rose Bird wrote: “The free school guarantee lifts budgetary decisions concerning public education out of the individual family setting and requires that such decisions be made by the community as a whole. Once the community has decided that a particular educational program is important enough to be offered by its public schools, a student’s participation in that program cannot be made to depend upon his or her family’s decision whether to pay a fee or buy a toaster.”

Still, there has been confusion over legal language and nuances. “The real issue is how things were stated,” said Steve Bolman, interim Superintendent of Petaluma Joint Union High School District. One of their schools was on the ACLU list for charging for choir robes. “Can parents be requested to make donations to support activities?”

The answer is yes, as long as they’re not strong-armed into it.

“Like many districts across the state we had well meaning parents, booster groups, and even teachers who maybe didn’t have clear guidance,” said Marcus Walton, communications director for the Capistrano Unified School District, which was also cited by the ACLU.

Since then, said Walton, administrators have been writing new guidelines for staff and fundraising groups. But some issues are so specific they make splitting hairs seem simple. For example: Two art students fire their clay sculptures. One takes the sculpture home, the other leaves it at school. Does the student who takes it home have to pay for the clay? Walton says yes.

Even if Gov. Brown signs the bill, Walton may be right in thinking that many of these questions will “have to be handled on a classroom to classroom basis.”




September 14, 2011 • 8:29 am

Question for the audience: The principal of a California public charter school sends a personal letter to a number of parents who did not contribute to a voluntary fundraising campaign.  The ask is explicit: $3,000 per student per year.

In the letter, parents are told “I know you have not been able to make a financial contribution to **** yet this year”; “If you don’t make a tax-deductible gift to the Annual Fund this year, your share of that burden will be passed along to other families” and “I firmly believe that in education, you get what you pay for: there are no bargains.”

The school publishes a list of donors by name and donation level.  In a small school community, it is widely known who gave, who gave how much and who did not give.  The principal is mailing personal letters directly to parents who did not make this contribution.  Does this impact parents’ interaction with the school with regard to concerns about their students?

What parents are not told is that approximately 50% of the annual fund raising campaign yield is added to the school’s cash reserves each year. Ed code requires that charter schools maintain a 5% cash reserve.  This school now carries a cash reserve of nearly 70% of its annual operating expenses.  Yet parents are exhorted to donate: “We know our families are grateful for the quality educational experience that **** provides, but the fact is that it just cannot be provided with public funding alone.”

The situation raises some interesting questions.  There are no stated penalties for a failure to participate, but parents are subject to collections calls from fellow parents and letters from the principal.  The community will know whether or not a parent took on “your share of the burden”. How many parents, knowing they may receive this letter, donate out of intimidation? Is shame a legitimate fundraising tactic in a public school? Or is that not addressed by this bill or the ACLU suit?

Should a school be required to disclose the size of its reserve and its intended purpose? Should non-restricted donations be co-mingled with state and federal revenues?

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