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California Fees Case Returns to Court

In September 2010, the filed a class action lawsuit in the county of Los Angeles against the State of California, charging that school districts across the state are charging illegal fees for educational programs. The case relies on an ACLU investigation that found at least 40 schools charging fees for course workbooks, laboratory expenses, Advanced Placement exams and courses, physical education uniforms, fine arts classes, and a variety of other programs. The lawsuit was settled in December 2010. The settlement did not establish any new legal ground, since it was clear under California law that school fees do violate the right to a free public education, but it provided a framework for “informing students and parents of their rights, enforcing the rules and penalizing transgressors.”

Specifically, the state agreed to promptly send a letter and guidance document to all school superintendents informing them that “ whenever a public school offers a curricular or extracurricular program to students, the California Constitution requires that the school provide all materials, supplies and equipment–whether they are necessary or supplementary to the program–to students free of charge.” The State also agreed to seek legislative and regulatory revisions that would spell out these legal requirements and would provide a complaint process for parents who believed that a school district is violating the constitutional prohibitions.

In October, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the legislature’s enactment of the statutory provisions agreed to in the settlement. Although acknowledging that imposing school fees is illegal, the governor said that the settlement agreement “goes too far. The California Association of School Administrators claimed that the audit procedures required by the settlement agreement would have added significant mandated costs to school districts.” The ACLU promptly reinstated the litigation, as permitted under the settlement agreement.

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