Illegal School Fees The Target Of New Legislation

Cracking Down On 'Pay To Learn' Public Schools

Story comes courtesy of California Watch.

Bolstered by a recent court ruling, a Southern California assemblyman filed legislation last week that seeks to crack down on school districts that charge parents and students fees that violate state law.

AB 1575, sponsored by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-South Gate, would require school superintendents and county offices to conduct annual reviews of all policies and practices at their local districts to ensure no unlawful fees are charged.

The reviews would start during the 2012-13 fiscal year. The measure also mandates that all schools have a complaint process that enables parents to question fees and receive resolution within 30 days. Schools that don't have a process now would be required to create one by March 1, 2013.

Lara introduced the measure Feb. 1, days after a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge refused to dismiss an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit accusing the state of allowing schools to charge for participation in classes and extracurricular activities.

The attorney general's office, state Department of Education, state Board of Education and state superintendent of public instruction wanted the case dismissed, arguing that it wasn't their responsibility to ensure school districts comply with the law. But Superior Court Judge Carl West found the state's arguments "not persuasive." He ordered both the ACLU and the state to continue the case and file their next statements by March 2.

Lara called West's decision a victory for all children.

“The ACLU’s victory in court confirms that it is ultimately the State’s responsibility to uphold our Constitutional guarantee of providing an equal educational opportunity for all children, not just those who can afford it," Lara said in a statement. "AB 1575 provides a new opportunity for the Legislature and Governor to work together to address our current ‘pay to learn’ system. No student should have to worry about being excluded or humiliated when they can’t pay to participate in educational activities."

The ACLU found widespread instances of school districts charging parents and students exorbitant and improper fees for books, educational materials and extracurricular activities.

In 2010, the group filed a class-action lawsuit [PDF] against the state, but settled after then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to support a law that would create an enforcement mechanism addressing the issue.

Lara then filed AB 165, which sought to require annual audits and a parental complaint process. The measure was overwhelmingly supported by the state Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who called the measure "the wrong approach."

If Lara's new bill is successful, local school officials would be required to publicly report any improper fees to the local school board and reimburse parents and students. All annual school audits would include a review of illegal fee charges.

Corey Johnson is an investigative reporter focusing on money and politics for California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting. To read more California Watch stories, click here.

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