New California Law Addresses Issue of School Fees Once Again

New California Law Addresses Issue of School Fees Once Again
A new law recently went into effect in California that prohibits schools from charging exorbitant fees for various incidentals in schools like uniforms and field trips. It also provides a path for parents who believe school fees are unfair and in violation of state regulations.

The right to a free public education has been hotly contested in California public schools in recent years. The addition of multiple fees for classroom and extracurricular activities has created a serious financial quandary for many families in the state. As a result, state lawmakers have passed a new law that addresses the issues of high fees, which include guidelines on the fees that can be required and how to help low-income families participate. Unfortunately, the law so full of good intentions has created a whole new set of problems for parents, students and school staff.

The Problem with School Fees

Issues with school fees have been reported by parents and students in the California school system for some time. An investigation by the ACLU in 2010 revealed that many schools were requiring students to purchase workbooks, textbooks and other essentials in school districts across the state. Investigators also discovered that students who were unable to pay were sometimes singled out from the rest of their classmates, according to a report at the Los Angeles Times.

In some of those cases, students were told to shell out hundreds of dollars for graphing calculators, athletic uniforms – even uniforms required for physical education classes at the school. Although many of these fees had previously been ruled illegal in litigation, schools were continuing to assess them. They were presenting a particular hardship for low-income students, who either had to go without important supplies or activities or come forward as a person in need of financial assistance.

This video reports on Oak Chan Elementary school in Folsom which is the first school in California to distribute books from a vending machine, instead of snacks. Students purchase the books with tokens they get for good behavior.

That is when Governor Brown stepped in and signed legislation banning any type of school fees related to educational activities. The new law states that schools cannot merely allow low-income families to apply for exemptions from the fees or request scholarships to help pay them. Fees cannot be assessed at any K-12 school in the state, including charter schools. In addition, the new legislation provides a complaint process parents can go through if they believe their child is being unfairly charged for a supply or activity in violation of the new law.

The Problem with the New Law

In theory, the new law sounds good to many California residents tired of shelling out fees throughout the school year for various supplies and activities. However, putting the law into effect has resulted in a significant amount of confusion for both schools and parents, who are now unsure of exactly how those tricky money issues should now be handled.

For example, EdSource explains that while students cannot be asked to pay for clay for a project in art class, they can be charged if they want to take their finished piece home. Students may be charged to attend a dance or sporting event, but they cannot be charged to be a member of the team. Schools can even ask students to solicit donations for specific needs, but they cannot be penalized in any way if they refuse to comply with the request.

This video reports on the annual BJC Book Brigade which covers 335 schools in 63 public school districts in Saint Louis.

As a result of the many “grey areas” of the new law, schools across the state have considered canceling field trips and teachers are afraid to ask students to bring in supplies from home. The Oakland Tribune reports that many teachers are unsure of how and what to say to students regarding assistance for low-income students and other sensitive money-related subjects. Schools are now making efforts to solicit donations for class trips and other incidentals, but what if the donations fall short? Can students be asked to pitch in if they can?

Financial Need No Longer Identified

In the past, PTAs often administered scholarship funds for families in need, to help them pay for field trips, athletic participation, and school supplies. However, the new law makes it illegal for schools to let low-income families know they can ask for help. While the original purpose was to prohibit the act of singling out low-income students, in some cases, it could do more harm than good.

For example, Will C. Wood High offers music students the chance to go on music trips every year, which can cost thousands of dollars in some cases, according to The Reporter. The teacher in the music program, David Barthelmess, told the publication that a student is never denied the opportunity to join the group on a trip due to financial constraints. Instead, the school offers scholarships, which are funded by multiple fundraising events throughout the year. Barthelmess’s past students have traveled to Hawaii, Washington D.C and Canada for performances.

Some schools in the state are still requiring students to bring their own supplies to class, despite the new law. Chris Funk, superintendent of East Side Union District, told the Chicago Tribune, “We expect kids to bring their supplies to school and to be ready to learn.”

This TEDTalk asks "why should a good education be exclusive to rich kids? Schools in low-income neighborhoods across the US, specifically in communities of color, lack resources that are standard at wealthier schools -- things like musical instruments, new books, healthy school lunches and soccer fields -- and this has a real impact on the potential of students. Kandice Sumner sees the disparity every day in her classroom in Boston. In this inspiring talk, she asks us to face facts -- and change them."

However, the district is prohibited by the new law from penalizing students who can’t – or won’t – bring supplies. In some cases, students are telling teachers they don’t have to bring supplies from home. According to the new law, they are technically correct in saying so. However, lack of available supplies can strap a financially struggling school district even further.

It appears that the courts may need to become the instruments for defining the boundaries and guidelines of the new law. Although no one is looking to file a new lawsuit involving school fees in California at this time, there is speculation that litigation in the future may provide welcome clarification of a law that is causing nearly as much confusion as protection.

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