Administrators and parents alike have long waited for clarity on what fees schools could and could not charge students. With Governor Brown signing legislation that settles a lawsuit over public schools charging students for educational activities and materials, that day has come, right? Think again.
Intended to clarify the law around what fees school districts can charge and to rightfully curb abuses where schools have been illegally exacting fees from students, AB 1575 was the result of the ACLU’s class action lawsuit claiming that public schools have been violating the free school guarantee in the State Constitution. Without rehashing all of the details of the law and requirements, I’d like to point out the dilemma and challenge that school boards and districts face in implementing the law, and posit that the matter is far from settled. The publicity of the ACLU lawsuit prompted many districts, including my own, to start these discussions almost two years ago and analyze what we were charging students.
Although there is little to no dispute about the imperative that public school must be free, it doesn’t work out that neatly in its real-life application. First, we must acknowledge, as many readers of the EdSource article noted, that this problem is in large part a direct result of the massive underfunding of our public schools in this state. School districts have always been forced to be “creative” in how they deliver programs with less money, and in many cases that has involved charging students and families. But the pressure to do this has escalated in the last five years. This doesn’t condone such actions, and clearly there are some serious abuses (e.g., forcing students to buy textbooks or humiliating students who don’t pay). Second, we must recognize that in districts that have a community with the means, private fundraising supports many school activities; this is not charging the students directly, but it is indirect fee collection (even though it’s through “voluntary” participation).
Despite the supposed clarity in the new law and the guidance given by the State Superintendent, it’s still not clear what falls on what side of the line. In our district, for example, we have talked about using at least two criteria to determine the activities for which the district cannot charge: (a) services/tools/products that are integral to the educational experience of the school, and (b) those where the expense to provide it is required and unavoidable. If an expense meets both of these criteria, it’s clear that the district should pay. Textbooks – very clear that the district should pay. School photos – very clear that the district should be allowed to charge the student a fee.
But take items that satisfy criterion (a) but not (b). One such example is summer reading books. It’s perfectly reasonable for a school to require mandatory summer reading for its students (making it integral to the educational experience). But if those books are available for free to borrow from the school library (or the town library), then should the school district have to supply those books, as there is a free and reasonable alternative? If so, it would logically follow that the district could charge a fee for these books since the student/family doesn’t have to make such a purchase to fulfill the educational requirement. What if schoolwork requires doing research after school on the Internet, and many families don’t have a computer or Internet access at home? Should the school be required to provide that alternative (or even pay for their Internet access at home)? One can easily see where these grey areas come up quickly.
Then there is the fundamental question of what is integral to the curriculum. Our middle schools have an instrumental music program. It’s one of the electives, so students aren’t forced to take it, although many do. The district pays for the music teacher, but what about the instruments? How is a musical instrument conceptually any different from a textbook (because if a student took a different elective, he/she would surely be supplied with the appropriate textbook if one existed)? But the cost of instruments is so prohibitive that many districts might choose to just not offer the program at all, which would be unfortunate.
What about uniforms for school sports? What about other after-school “enrichment” programs for which many districts are now charging? Looked at from one angle, these are “after-school” activities that can’t be part of the standard curriculum, or they’d take place during the regular school day, no? But these are all programs that school districts should be providing (and would be if they had the funding), so why are they any different from classes offered during the school day? I suspect many school districts will be forced to thread the needle in defining what each program is and how it fits within the curriculum to attempt to abide by the law.
There are lots of other examples where perspectives will differ – and inevitably lead to disputes – whether it be transportation, clubs, or even whether the lowly pencil is a required material. And what about the growing number of districts asking every student to bring their own device (e.g., tablet, phone) as a primary tool for school? And despite this new law, our fiscal realities haven’t changed (and will become worse if both Propositions 30 and 38 fail), so it is naïve to believe that many districts won’t be forced by financial circumstance to ignore the law. I don’t condone it, but it is rational to believe they will wait to get sued first because they have no other choice in the short term.
I’m not writing this to debate which fees can be charged and which can’t (or which should and shouldn’t), but rather to state that despite the new law and particularly in the absence of proper funding, the issue will likely stay very foggy and confusing for boards, districts, and parents. Notwithstanding the assertions of clarity, ultimately many of these specific use cases may be decided by the courts in response to future lawsuits. However, if AB 1575 just stops the most blatant abuses, then it will have accomplished something. Like most other public school advocates, I dream of the day when schools have enough funding to make this issue moot, but today that is still just a dream.
Seth Rosenblatt is the president of the Governing Board of the San Carlos School District, currently in his second term. He also serves as the president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association and sits on the Executive Committee of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Sustainable Schools Task Force. He has two children in San Carlos public schools. He writes frequently on issues in public education, in regional and national publications as well as on his own blog. Seth has more than 20 years of experience in media and technology, including executive positions in both start-up companies and large enterprises. He currently operates his own consulting firm for technology companies focused on strategy, marketing, and business development. Seth holds a B.A. in Economics from Dartmouth College and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.