ACLU lawsuit: Public school fees are unconstitutional

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California Academy of Math and Science in the Long Beach Unified School District charges students fees for physical education uniforms that they are required to wear.

The California constitution guarantees that public schools will provide a free education to students. The American Civil Liberties Union alleges in a lawsuit filed today that dozens of school districts violate this promise by creating a system of “Pay to Learn” schools.

A high school student and his mother told the ACLU in a videotaped interview about how his teacher belittled him when he purchased cheaper school supplies than those she’d assigned.

Mother: She didn’t like it because it wasn’t exactly the same even though he had all the dividers and such. I forgot about that, that she actually docked your grade. And then he had a few assignments he missed when he couldn’t purchase a compass last year.

The ACLU says the student - who attends a school in an affluent Orange County neighborhood - was afraid to give his name because he feared school employees would retaliate against him.

The ACLU says it scanned school websites and found $20 fees for language workbooks at Los Alamitos High, a $30 digital photography lab fee at Arcadia High, and $150 fees for advanced placement biology lab supplies at Northwood High in Irvine.

The ACLU’s Mark Rosenbaum says students who can’t afford the fees are at a disadvantage to those who can. "There does not exist in California a true system of free public schools. Instead what we have are pay to learn schools," he said.

About a fourth of the school districts found to charge fees are in Los Angeles and Orange Counties.

Capistrano Unified says it questions the accuracy of the ACLU’s allegations against its schools. Anaheim Union High School District and Irvine Unified tell KPCC they began to review student fees a few weeks ago. Irvine Unified spokesman Ian Hanigan says district lawyers are looking into the allegations.

"It’s a matter where you have counsel take a look at your current practices, if it’s determined that our practices are out of alignment with any aspect of the law then we certainly want to do anything we can to be compliant," Hanigan said.

All public schools are making do with a lot less this year. Irvine Unified cut $20 million from its budget last year.

The ACLU responds that budget cuts are no excuse for these fees. It has sued the State of California and the governor, lawyers say, to compel lawmakers to make sure the economy doesn’t make public education more unequal than it already is.

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