Can Public Schools Legally Charge for Fees and Uniforms?

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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 was accessible 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 and extracurricular activities. For many California schools, this means charging fees for gym uniforms and examinations. However, these fees 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. The ACLU's legal director in Southern California, Mark Rosenbaum 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 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 actiities, athletic uniforms, and even Advanced Placement examinations.

This video posits the question of whether public schools are really free.

Fees = Inequity

The underlying problem of charging stuor activities is that it creates an unequal playing field for low-income students. Because these students don't necessarily have the money to pay fees for activities like sports, 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 about 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 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 sports 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."

This video looks at the issue of public schools charging fees.

School Officials Counter

Despite the complaints from parents and the involvement of attorneys, California schools insist they are indeed free, and the fees are purely voluntary. In 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 free public education. We are a very large school district working hard to make clear to all teachers, principals, coaches, and stafexcesst public education is free with few exceptions."

Controversy rages inoverornia, where schools and parents still face 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 oudugenuinelyudent rights might look like in the world of a genuinely free public education system.

Questions? Contact us on Facebook. @publicschoolreview

#PublicSchoolFees #EducationCosts #AffordableEducation

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