Can Public Schools Legally Charge for Fees and Uniforms?

Can Public Schools Legally Charge for Fees and Uniforms?
From sports uniform fees and even AP exam costs, how free are public schools? Learn about the unconstitutionality of public school fees and how parents and the ACLU are fighting against these costs in California.
Public education used to be free to kids from all neighborhoods and walks of life. However, recent budget cuts across the board have left many schools scrambling to find ways to fund their programs andextracurricular activities. For many California schools, this means charging fees for items like gym uniforms and some examinations. However, these fees actually break state laws regarding public education, and many families are up-in-arms about the practice.
 
Calling in the ACLU
 
According to a recent report in the New York Times, 35 school districts across California have been named in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for charging fees to students that violate state law. Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU's legal director in Southern California, told the Times, "We found that the charging of fees for required academic courses is rampant." Two unnamed plaintiffs are involved in the suit, with both students attending high school in Orange County.
 
The lawsuit comes on the heels of an investigation by the San Diego Union-Tribune, which found that schools in San Diego Unified were openly charging fees, as outlined on their district's website. The Education Report says that charging fees in California schools is illegal, according to a California Supreme Court ruling in 1984.
 
Despite the state law, many schools have decided to overcome budget shortfalls by charging students and their parents for extracurricular activities, athletic uniforms and even Advanced Placement examinations.  
 
Fees = Inequity
 
The underlying problem of charging student fees for activities is that it creates an unequal playing field for the low-income students. Because these students don't necessarily have the money to pay fees for activities likesports, cheerleading and other extracurricular activities, they must go without. In the world of public education, there should be no such thing as the "haves" and "have-nots," which is why organizations like the ACLU are taking up the charge.
 
One California parent has been very vocal of her opposition to fees of any kind in public education. According to a report at 760 KFMB, Sally Smith was fed up with purchasing items like calculators and school supplies for her children. She told the radio station, "Parents need to know that they don't have to pay for school supplies, and they don't have to tell anybody that it's because they can't afford to pay for it. It's their right to send their child to school and get a free education."
 
San Diego Unified attorney Mark Bresee agrees. He told 760 KFMB, "If you are told you have to pay a fee for your child to participate in something, or take a class, that should be brought to our attention because that's not right." While schools are prohibited from charging specific fees for activities or supplies, they can ask for voluntary donations from parents. However many California parents do not feel that the so-called "donations" are really as voluntary as the schools want to lead people to believe.
 
Marie Isaaks, a parent of a student in the Sweetwater Union High School district, told Sign on San Diego that her son was required to purchase a spirit pack that contained a sport uniform. Isaaks said, "He was told he had to purchase it. His track uniform was part of his spirit pack. We have that one. Why can't they wear (the one) from cross country, I'll never know because it is the same thing."
 
School Officials Counter
 
Despite the complaints from parents and the involvement of attorneys, California schools are insisting they are indeed free, and the fees are purely voluntary. On a report in California Watch, San Diego superintendent Bill Kowba said that the practice of charging fees was wrong, and schools will offer refunds when appropriate. He said in a news conference, "I want to make it clear that we are very serious about public education being free. We are a very large school district and are working hard to make clear to all teachers, principals, coaches and staff that public education is free with very few exceptions."
 
Controversy rages in California, where schools and parents are still facing off over the definition of "free" education. Because school is just beginning in many schools across the state, there is no doubt that school-assessed fees will continue to be a hot-button issue for time to come. As this California-based issue is being decided in courtrooms across the state, the rest of the country will also be tuning in to find out what individual student rights might look like in the world of a truly free public education system.

Additional Resources [+]
Growing Trend: Public Schools are Soliciting Churches and Businesses for Money
Growing Trend: Public Schools are Soliciting Churches and Businesses for Money
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Is Your Public School Fairly Funded? View the Report
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