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New CA law ensures public school students aren't charged illegal fees

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A bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown this weekend will help ensure that public school districts don't charge students illegal fees to participate in educational activities.

The American Civil Liberties Union of California and the law firm Morrison & Foerster announced Monday that in response to the new law they will dismiss their class action lawsuit, Doe vs. State of California, filed two years ago. The suit alleged that the imposition of such fees violated the California Constitution, which has provided for "free school" since 1879.

AB 1575, authored by Democratic state Assemblyman Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens, requires the California Department of Education to provide guidance and updates on the "free schools guarantee" to superintendents and administrators every three years starting in 2014.

If districts charge illegal fees, the new law also provides for a modified uniform complaint process at schools so parents and students may resolve their concerns locally without costly litigation. Public school districts must establish this complaint process by March 1.

"This legislation provides a statewide mechanism to identify instances where students have been charged illegal fees and promptly puts an end to the practice," Dan Marmalefsky, a partner at Morrison & Foerster, said in a statement. The firm worked pro bono on the case.

"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."

The lawsuit was based on an online investigation the ACLU conducted during August 2010. It found that at least 32 schools throughout California required students to pay for educational materials.

The suit alleges that requring students to pay discriminates against lower-income children and results in an unfair system that favors wealth.

"There are budget problems in the state and it's having problems ensuring schools get the money they need [but] you can't pass that cost along to school children and their families," said David Sapp, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. "In tough budget times, it's tough budget times for families as well," said Sapp. 

In a March 2011 survey by UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, 19 percent of California high school principals reported that their schools required students and families to pay for instructional materials in violation of the free school guarantee.

Lara introduced a similar bill in January 2011. It would have included a comparatively shorter response period during the complaint process and regular compliance audits. The bill passed in both houses but was vetoed by Brown last October; he said at the time that it "goes too far."

"Equal educational opportunity in free public schools is the bedrock of our democratic society, promising that every child will have a chance to achieve the American dream," Lara said in a statement released Monday. "AB 1575 ensures the 'free schools' guarantee is applied equally to all children in our state and remains a meaningful protection in our Constitution."

The bill was supported by organizations including the California State PTA, California Federation of Teachers, L.A. Unified, California Assn. of School Business Officials and California Assn. of Suburban School Districts.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams). 

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