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Lawsuit to ban public-school fees clears key hurdle

 

Photo: Students leaves LA Arts High School. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times


State officials failed Thursday to get a judge to dismiss a lawsuit that seeks to enforce the principle that California students have a right to a free education through high school.

 

The lawsuit arose over the widespread practice of making students pay fees for some classes, activities and certain exams. The practice has been increasing in some areas as cutbacks in state funding have put school districts under greater pressure to raise money to maintain their offerings. Many of the fees, however, predate the recent economic recession in California.

L.A. Superior Court Judge Carl J. West did not rule on the merits of the case, but concluded that the suit should go forward.

“The state itself bears the ultimate authority and responsibility to ensure that its district-based system of common school provides basic equality of educational opportunity,” he wrote, quoting a court's ruling in a 1992 case.

In the recent litigation, which is being pursued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and attorneys from law firm Morrison & Foerster, two students and their families agreed to be plaintiffs, representing students statewide.

One of the students, an Orange County high schooler identified as Jane Doe, was unable to buy materials and only received some of them weeks after other students, according to court papers. She also was singled out in front of her classmates as someone who hadn’t paid up, those documents said.

The California Constitution entitles students to a free public education, but exactly what this means has been a subject of much dispute. The current lawsuit was filed in 2010, and the litigants announced a tentative settlement with then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in December 2010. But that deal did not become final before Schwarzenegger left office, and his successor, Jerry Brown, wouldn’t go along. Brown also vetoed legislation that would have established state oversight of fees charged by schools, calling it an overreach. 

With the lawsuit reactivated, the state asserted in court papers that it isn’t an appropriate or necessary party to the litigation. Objections also were filed jointly by state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, the California Department of Education and the state Board of Education. They argued that finding a remedy for charging fees was largely the responsibility of the Legislature. Moreover, they said, “local school districts have the power and authority to cure the alleged problems.”

Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU of Southern California, condemned the positions taken by state officials.

“It’s beyond outrageous,” he said, that the state officials and agencies “are saying that they have no responsibility.”

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-- Howard Blume

Photo: Students leaves LA Arts High School. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times

 
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