Our nation’s public schools represent the highest and most revolutionary ideal of American democracy — that through education open to all on an equal basis, every child can achieve his or her full potential as a result of merit and hard work. The California Constitution, like the constitutions of every state in the Union, accordingly entitles the children of this state to a free and equal education. But, as an investigation by the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU/SC) released Friday has found, there’s no system of truly free public education in California. Public schools throughout the state openly ignore this constitutional right by requiring students to pay fees and purchase assigned materials for academic courses and for school-sponsored extracurricular activities.
The ACLU of Northern California, ACLU/SC and ACLU San Diego & Imperial Counties filed a class action lawsuit Friday on behalf of two public school students who seek to compel the state to establish a system for monitoring school districts and ensuring they comply with the free schools clause. Because the state is the ultimate guarantor of students’ right to a free and equal education, it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that “free” means “free.”
Since its adoption in 1879, the California Constitution has required that the state provide a system of free public schools. In 1984, the California Supreme Court ruled unequivocally in Hartzell v. Connell that “[i]n guaranteeing ‘free’ public schools, article IX section 5 fixes the precise extent of the financial burden which may be imposed on the right to an education — none.” Accordingly, public schools cannot charge students or families any fees as a condition for participating in “educational programs,” including both curricular and extracurricular activities.
ACLU/SC’s investigation uncovered more than 50 public school districts in which at least one high school openly acknowledges on its website that students must pay fees in order to participate in educational programs. The illegal fees that we discovered include numerous mandatory fees related to core academic courses that fulfill high school graduation requirements — requiring students to purchase required text and workbooks for academic courses, charging lab fees for science classes, charging material fees for fine arts classes, and requiring students to purchase school-issued P.E. uniforms. They also included many instances where schools charge students hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of dollars to participate in school-sponsored extracurricular activities.
Plaintiff Jason Roe* was required to purchase an English workbook, a chemistry lab manual, a Spanish language workbook, and a student agenda. Jason’s mother was informed by a school official that, if Jason did not purchase the English workbook, the only way he could access a school-provided copy to complete homework assignments was by going to the school library after school. Because Jason’s family could afford to pay only a portion of the fees for these required materials, Jason was compelled to start school without his chemistry manual and Spanish workbook. Watch a video of Jason and his mother describing the humiliation of these experiences here.
Although the ACLU/SC’s investigation and the lawsuit cast an important spotlight on this widespread and illegal practice, it is important to keep in mind the context in which public schools are operating today. School districts’ pursuit of this plainly illegal funding stream is a symptom of the broader dysfunction of California’s finance and governance system for public education and underscores the failure of leadership in state government to ensure that schools are provided the resources necessary to provide a free and equal education. With an ever-shrinking allocation of funding from the state, school districts face unprecedented challenges as they search for a way to offer the educational programming that we as citizens expect our public schools to provide.
This doesn’t excuse schools’ resort to an illegal means of raising funds, but it highlights the need for advocacy to ensure our public schools receive from the state the resources necessary to achieve the democratic ideal of helping all children — regardless of their socioeconomic status, race, or national origin — to achieve their full potential.