New Law Would Stop Circumvention of CA Free Ed Guarantee

The California Constitution guarantees students a free K-12 education, but some schools, looking for ways to make up budgeting shortfalls, have found ways around the restriction. With this year’s legislative session is winding to a close, lawmakers have an opportunity to ensure that no California child is charged for something guaranteed to be free by forbidding schools from charging for materials that considered a mandatory part of a student’s education.

The law is meant to handle the issue which has been brought to public attention via an American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit against the state. The ACLU is demanding that the state should do more to enforce the Constitutional free education guarantee, and stop schools from charging fees or force students to purchase assigned materials for their classes. Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU chief counsel, called the practice an attempt by the state to “balance the budget on the backpacks of kids.”

One of the defendants in the suit, the California Department of Education, took steps to fix the issue just last year by sending out a memorandum to all school districts outlining which kinds of fees are permissible under the free education guarantee and which ones are not. However, the memo seems to have not had any success in reducing or eliminating the illegal fees from the state’s 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.

The problem is the non-existent enforcement mechanism. The students who are the victims of the illegal fees and orders to purchase have nowhere to turn to complain. Brooks Allen, another attorney with the ACLU, said that families who wish to assert their legal rights to an education funded by the state shouldn’t have to resort to lawyer. The state, not the judiciary, should take the leading role in making sure that children get what they’re entitled to by law.

This is where Lara’s AB 1575, which is currently awaiting consideration by lawmakers, comes in. The proposal would create a way for families to lodge formal complaints if they feel that the charges levied by the school are illegal. Those who wish to take advantage of it can first appeal to the school principal — and subsequently push their complaint all the way up the chain to the California Board of Ed.

Critics of excessive school fees would find such a proposal reasonable, but a similar bill submitted by Lara last year and passed by the state Assembly was vetoed by California Governor Jerry Brown for going “too far.”

It would have required the posting of a notice specifying legal and illegal fees in each classroom — like a workplace job safety notice — and mandated frequent auditing.

The current bill has been toned down. Negotiations are underway between the bill’s sponsors and the governor’s office. Brown has not taken a position on the new measure. Neither has state schools chief Tom Torlakson.

The bill, strongly backed by Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles), passed the lower house and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee.