ACLU Sues California Over Public School Fees for Students

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.


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Hartzell vs. Connell


The UCLU just screwed the poor kids. All sports programs will be gone in 5 years. Kids will go to private club sports and the poor kids are screwed.


The ACLU just ruined the hopes and future of poor kids. Public school sports will go away without funding and kids will go to club sports, leaving the poor kids out. Nice job ACLU


Thanks for establishing a path to ending all school sports and activities for the publis school sector. In a short period of time, if your child will participate in sports or other activities you will need to send them to a private school because that will be the only place that will be able to offer these programs. Again will continue to let the minority controll the majority.


I wanted to find out if a coach is putting the word "Make checks payable to..." is that against the law? Isn't it suppose to be "Donations" also, if the child wears a school uniform for Spring and Summer leagues, isn't that a school event?


Doesn't the word "extra" in extracurricular mean just that? Not part of the regular school day? We never had a problem with this growing up. We didn't have money either and to be a cheerleader, I knew I had to work hard and help with fundraisers if I wanted to participate. These days the ACLU has helped this new generation become a bunch of whiny people and if we don't give them what they ask for they sue. That is what you teach. They don't know how to work hard for anything. If one person doesn't receive an award than they cry. Schools will no longer be able to offer any extracurricular activities because no on wants to pony up $5 anymore......thanks a ton for changing what used to be an honor to receive an award, work hard in competition and make one feel like they earned a place in the you handed it to them and they expect more.....that is what you have done!


I think the ACLU did just what they needed to do. Requiring students in a public education environment to pay ANY amount of due fees, or purchase any curricular-related materials on their own merritt is abismal. It's a violation of garunteed constitutional rights. Not every student can afford these fees, so don't just think of your own finance when you read these stories. Making it impossible or miserably difficult for our own students to access the public education we had? We should be ashamed.


Our band program has always fought make sure EVERY student interested in playing music has an opportunity to participate. Everyone is expected to do the most they can do and we have, for many years, set suggested fees and families have paid as they are or aren't able. Thanks to these lawsuits, however, our school administration has tied our hands on how we can raise funds. We think they are over-reaching in their zealousness to protect themselves from lawsuits but we have to comply with District guidelines. The results are apparent all over the state -- a collapse of our great music programs. We currently operate on a $100,000 per year budget raised by volunteers. Contributions are down significantly, we don't do anywhere near the things we used to do and some of us lose sleep at night wondering where the money for payroll for the coaches we pay for for our program is going to come from. We keep over 65 kids productively engaged and off the streets year-round. Where and what is, really, justice, I wonder?

Marshall's Kid

I agree with Anonymous June 2, 2012. "ACLU did just what they needed to do", so every child gets the same opportunities as those children who have financial means. My 4.0 child works hard to maintian his grades and he is in the "extra-cirricular" activity where his "FAIR SHARE" as they call it is $1,800 per school year! He is paying $1,800 to re-use the same uniform, and same shoes each year. Their ought-to-be-a-law. A Donation should be just that "A DONATION", but to harrasse you or a child to make $200 payments each month can be difficult and it becomes a hardship to a single parent. We do our part with donations and selling, fundraising, etc. But to Booster clubs sometimes its not enough untill the full Price of $1800 is meet.

A Teacher

I have to pay for anything cool we do in my class. ACLU doesn't give money to schools, Republicans don't give money to schools, Democrats try to (a little) and parents are not aloud to. So it is up to the teacher to spend their own money. Nice job ACLU do your kids go to private school? ACLU needs to look at this imperfect world and find the best solution, bullying teachers and schools is not the way.


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