Lawsuit, bill aim to keep K-12 education free in California

From The Los Angeles Times:

SACRAMENTO — Not every proposed law is historic or sweeping. Some merely are pretty good ideas — perhaps even important for a low-income kid.

One such bill is among the hundreds awaiting action as the Legislature heads into its final month. The measure’s goal is to stop schools from socking students with illegal fees.

Fees for sports and field trips and textbooks and art, for example.

They’re being charged despite a guarantee in the California Constitution of a free K-12 education.

“Access to public education is a right enjoyed by all — not a commodity for sale,” the California Supreme Court ruled in 1984. “Educational opportunities must be provided to all students without regard to their families’ ability or willingness to pay fees….

“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.”

Nevertheless, according to a pending lawsuit filed two years ago by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, “the state has done nothing as its public school districts blatantly violate the free school guarantee by requiring students to pay fees and purchase assigned materials for credit courses.”

“Basically,” says ACLU chief counsel Mark Rosenbaum, “the state is balancing the budget on the backpacks of kids.”

The state Department of Education, a defendant in the suit, even last year prepared a detailed memo advising which fees are legal and which illegal. But it seems to have been widely ignored by many schools.

“Some of these school districts, I understand they’re in a difficult situation,” says Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens.) “God knows the state hasn’t helped the school districts in terms of funding the education system.

“But what some schools are charging in fees is against the law.”

And nobody apparently is enforcing the law.

“We find it perverse,” says ACLU attorney Brooks Allen, “that the only mechanism to enforce the constitutional right of a student who can’t afford a textbook is to go out and hire a lawyer.

“We want the state to have a role.”

It’s not just the principle of a free public education that is at stake. It’s also the practical effect of stigmatizing and humiliating poor kids who can’t afford the teacher’s demand to kick in money for a program.

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