The American Civil Liberties Union is examining school districts across California to determine if they are illegally charging students mandatory fees, an attorney said Friday.
The ACLU has received reports that cash-strapped districts are levying fees for everything from textbooks to cheerleading squads, which violates the state constitution’s guarantee of a free, public education, said staff attorney David Sapp.
The issue is growing due to severe budget cutbacks in state education spending over the past three years, he said.
“It’s a pretty significant problem,” Sapp said. “It reflects a broader problem of how schools are underfunded.”
The issue arose this week when the ACLU sent a letter to the San Diego Unified School District, stating fees being charged at various schools for extracurricular activities — including more than $1,000 for cheerleading, $545 for the band and $300 to cover instruments, uniforms, festival entry fees and coaching — were illegal.
The state Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that mandatory fees for extracurricular activities violate the state constitutional guarantee to a free public education and a district’s financial hardship cannot be used to justify levying fees.
San Diego district spokesman Jack Brandais said Friday the school system has been working on the fee issue for several months and most of the fees listed in the ACLU letter have already been eliminated.
Superintendent Bill Kowba has reiterated the rules to staff, he said.
The district is working to ensure that no programs will be canceled because of the lack of funding and has set up a website list of permitted school charges, which include materials used in art, shop or sewing classes for the student’s own use and school camp programs, Brandais said.
Many districts get around the rules by requesting donations for programs like sports or saying fees are “suggested.” Other districts get away with it, Sapp said.
“It’s quite commonplace for fees to be charged for these type of activities,” he said. “We know that districts are being put in the position of choosing whether to cut programs or charging fees, which is clearly illegal.”
The Los Angeles Unified School District last week announced a plan to ask student athletes for a $24 donation to pay for buses to games, but Superintendent Ramon Cortines quickly rejected the proposal, saying it was not equitable to low-income students.
Sapp said the ACLU wants to find a way to bring school districts in compliance with the law but also ensure that programs are not cut. The group is particularly disturbed by reports that students are being charged lab fees or fees for textbooks, he said.
“Districts are not getting enough funding from the state to provide a full and complete educational experience,” Sapp said.
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