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California Court Strikes Down Pupil-Transport Fees

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A California appeals court has ruled that a state law permitting school districts to charge a fee for student transportation is unconstitutional.

The law in question violates California's constitutional guarantee of a free public education, the three-judge panel ruled, because "a school which conditions a student's participation in educational activities upon the payment of a fee clearly is not a free school.''

The law also violates the state's equal-protection guarantees, the court ruled, because "the maintenance of educational programs or activities cannot be bought at the cost of introducing wealth-based inequalities among students; the opportunity to receive an education must be supplied to every person on an equal basis.''

60 Districts Affected

At least 60 of California's 1,049 school districts--most but not all located in rural areas--have chosen to impose fees for student bus service under the state law that was challenged.

The law states that once a school district has decided to offer student transportation, "the governing board of the district may require the parents and guardians of all or some of the pupils transported to pay a portion of the cost of such transportation.''

The law also requires school boards to provide exemptions for parents and guardians who are unable to afford the fees.

Despite the availability of exemptions, the lawyers challenging the statute claimed that the fee imposed a hardship on many families, including a substantial number of migrant workers.

"Some families reported the choice at times boiled down to buying groceries or sending their children to school on a bus,'' the court noted in its opinion. "In several instances, parents stated that if their children either did not possess the free pass or the money to pay the fee on a particular day, the driver would not allow them on the school bus.''

The fees typically ranged from 25 to 50 cents per day, said Peter D. Roos, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case. "When you add that up,'' he said, "for a poor family, with several kids, that can be a significant burden.''

The total amount collected by school districts was only a small proportion of their overall budgets, he noted, adding that "there is fairly substantial harm to a number of kids without meaningful benefits for most districts.'' Problems also arose in the administration of the fee waivers, Mr. Roos said.

For example, he said, the law allows school districts to require parents to prove their indigence, and "poor non-English speaking migrant parents are unlikely to know how to go about doing that and are embarrassed to make that proof.''

Disagreement on Defendants

The case was filed in 1985 by two migrant-farmworker parents who challenged the fees imposed by the Fillmore Unified School District, which shortly thereafter agreed to end the practice and was dropped from the suit.

The remaining defendants--various state agencies and officials--argued that the individual school districts, and not the state, were the proper targets of the lawsuit.

The trial judge agreed with this view, but the appeals court called his decision "an abuse of discretion.''

"State education officials are ... ultimately responsible for any local school activity which violates a constitutional mandate,'' the appeals court ruled.

The state education department has not decided whether or not it will appeal the ruling, according to Joseph R. Symkowick, the department's general counsel. Because the department has only argued that it is not a proper party to the suit, he added, officials also have yet to decide whether or not they will attempt to defend the constitutionality of the law. --WS

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