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New law strengthens ban on public school fees

Gov. Jerry Brown

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed legislation that strengthens the state constitution’s guarantee of a free public education by specifically banning all school fees related to educational activities.

Such fees already were against the law, based on rulings and settlements arising from previous litigation, but advocates continued to pursue the issue because schools continued to charge students. School systems have been under pressure to maintain programs in the face of budget cuts, and some turned to fees.

“This is the first time that the state has taken any responsibility for making sure these fees are not charged,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which sued over the fees. He added that the new law should end a "pay-to-learn system that has operated illegally for decades.”

A 2010 ACLU investigation and subsequent lawsuit found that students were required to purchase textbooks, workbooks and assigned novels. In some cases, students were singled out if they were unable to pay fees. Other inappropriate fees were charged for uniforms required for physical education or for participation on school sports teams.

Under the law, signed Saturday, providing a mechanism to waive fees does not make fees legal. For example, schools cannot comply with the law by having a process for low-income families to apply for an exemption from fees. And students will not be allowed to earn privileges or credit by paying fees or to lose out by not paying them. The law applies to K-12 public schools, including charter schools, but not to state colleges.

Brown vetoed a version of the bill last year. The current legislation, Assembly Bill 1575 by Ricardo Lara (D-South Gate), focuses more narrowly on providing guidance to schools. It also provides for parents and students to raise concerns, anonymously as warranted, through an existing complaint process.

The state Department of Education must distribute guidelines every three years and also post them online.

“This legislation provides a statewide mechanism to identify instances where students have been charged illegal fees and promptly put an end to the practice,” said Dan Marmalefsky of Morrison & Foerster, which assisted with the litigation. “The state will now play an active role in stopping illegal fees, which is precisely what we sought to accomplish when we filed this lawsuit.” 

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-- Howard Blume

Photo: Gov. Jerry Brown at a news conference at Google headquarters on Sept. 25. Creidt: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

 
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