Under a settlement agreement announced Thursday, California students will have new protections against being charged fees for a public education that is required by law to be free.
The tentative resolution of a lawsuit filed against the state in September does not establish a legal principle — public education already was supposed to cost nothing for parents. But it does provide a framework for informing students and parents of their rights, enforcing the rules and penalizing transgressors.
"The state has never before been held accountable for enforcing the free school provision on behalf of students in the state," said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
Under the terms of the agreement, if auditors conclude that a school district has charged illegal fees, it would be required to reimburse parents or suffer a financial penalty. And parents could challenge such fees immediately through a complaint process that must be resolved within 30 days. The agreement includes notification provisions.
"There won't be a classroom in the state that won't have posted the prohibition against the imposition of fees," Rosenbaum said. "And every student and his or her family will also receive an individual notice that fees may not be imposed."
Attorneys filed the case after collecting numerous anecdotal examples of school districts charging fees for books, art supplies and other basic educational materials as well as for students' involvement in extracurricular activities.
The suit was filed on behalf of two Orange County public high school students by the ACLU and the Morrison & Foerster law firm.
One girl, a junior, recounted in the suit how she was charged for a Spanish workbook and for the novels required for an Advanced Placement English course. Her father was unemployed at the time and the family said that paying for such materials would be difficult, if not impossible. The student's name went on the blackboard as one of four students who had yet to pay for materials.
The district provided some materials, but only after several weeks. And unlike other students in the class, the girl was not allowed to write notes in the book.
The other student in the litigation, a boy, had to do without certain foreign language, English and history materials until a gift from his grandmother allowed him to purchase some of them. The school later allowed the student to borrow books.
Districts cited in the lawsuit included Long Beach Unified, Burbank Unified and Beverly Hills Unified. District officials have challenged the assertion that they were doing anything illegal, but also have maintained that their intent is to follow the law.
A requirement by a Long Beach school that students purchase a $30 uniform was no longer in place even at the time of the lawsuit's filing, a Long Beach school spokesman said.
Los Angeles Unified was not named in the suit. Officials have said the district prohibits supplementary charges, including voluntary participation fees for extracurricular activities.
In recent years, as school budgets have been slashed, fees have crept into public education as a way to maintain quality education offerings and extracurricular activities. Voluntary fundraising remains legal.
The settlement, which must be approved by a judge, also requires legislative action to put all of its provisions in place. But that's not expected to be a problem. Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-South Gate) already has endorsed the settlement, as did another Democrat, state Controller John Chiang.
"Our public schools aren't free if students are being nickel-and-dimed for the tools required to learn," Chiang said. "My office is committed to providing the auditing direction necessary."
And there's bipartisan assent from outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. In fact, the governor's office quickly concluded that the suit had merit and negotiated only to iron out details of a solution, attorneys said.
"The state will do its part to make sure every school district knows it is illegal to charge students fees for attending public schools," Schwarzenegger said in a statement Thursday.