Policy & Finance > State Board

No pay to play or learn at public schools



Public schools must provide the clay used in art class, but they can charge a student for taking home his or her finished sculpture. Playing sports is considered part of the educational mission, so schools have to cover all the costs – including uniforms – but attending a game is just for fun so students can pay admission. And schools can ask – even plead – for donations, but can’t require them in order for students to participate in a certain class or activity.

These are the black and white – and gray – rules of a new state law governing when it’s OK to charge students for school-related materials, trips and activities. Under the law, schools were required to implement a formal complaint process allowing families to challenge what they believe are illegal fees by the beginning of this month, but today the state Board of Education starts the process of setting regulations for reimbursing students who were illegally charged for fees in the past year.

“Previously, the only way to resolve this was to file a lawsuit,” said attorney Mark Bresee, a partner at Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, who’s been a school lawyer for 20 years. Now, he says, there’s a more “user-friendly enforcement mechanism.”

The 2012 bill that triggered today’s board action, AB 1575, settled a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in April 2011. That case, Jane Doe and Jason Roe v. The State of California, accused state education officials of looking the other way while public schools charged students and their families hundreds of dollars or more for everything from textbooks and graphing calculators to participation in field trips.

AB 1575 doesn’t change the law; that’s been settled by court cases and opinions from the state attorney general for some time. Article IX, Section 5 of the State Constitution already states that “The Legislature shall provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each district at least six months in every year, after the first year in which a school has been established.”

In 1984, the State Supreme Court essentially reaffirmed that in Hartzell v. Connell, ruling that once the community decides what’s an important component of an educational program, “a student’s participation in that program cannot be made to depend upon his or her family’s decision whether to pay a fee or buy a toaster.”

What the law does do is codify those rules and opinions into the California Education Code, and requires the State Board to add a definition of pupil fees and incorporate the new process and timeline for resolving complaints into Title 5 of the Ed Code, which governs how districts must respond to complaints. The amendments that the Board approves today will then go out for public comment and a public hearing on May 14. Final regulations aren’t expected before July.

But the law is still a bit of morass. Especially since there are separate regulations outlining 20 instances where a school may charge fees, and the boundaries aren’t always clear-cut.

“What we’re hearing from parents is confusion because they’re not really sure what the law means,” said Patty Scripter, director of legislation for the California State PTA. In particular, for an organization that raises money to support local schools, Scripter said there is misunderstanding about fundraising. Even attorneys aren’t quite clear about the law in this area.

It doesn’t prohibit schools or parents from voluntary fundraising, said Bresee, but there’s not consensus on the parameters, those narrow gray spaces where a teacher or parent might cross the line between asking and mandating.

When talking to educators and parents, “I find myself saying, ‘it depends,’ a lot,” said Bresee. That’s because each situation may be unique. For example, if a coach tells all the players that the team needs money and could really use a $200 donation from every family, and is clear that paying won’t affect a student’s standing on the team, that’s OK. “But, if two weeks later the same coach makes five kids stay after practice because they’re the only ones who didn’t pay, you’ve just crossed the line,” he explained.

Adding to the confusion is the way a school is allowed to approach the issue of helping students who can’t afford to pay for something. A teacher can ask for donations for a school-sponsored field trip, but can’t ask students who don’t have the money to talk to the teacher about getting it covered.

“You can’t ask people to self identify as low-income,” said Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy for the ACLU of Southern California, and you can’t have a field trip available only for those who pay. Allen said it’s all or nothing; either the school raises enough money for everyone, or no one goes.

For now, the big push is on educating all school personnel, PTA members and other school volunteers about the cans and cannots of the law. No one is ruling out future legal action, if just to get the court to better clarify those blurry edges.

 

 

Filed under: State Board

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26 Responses to “No pay to play or learn at public schools”

  1. Sue said

    on March 13, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    Do these regulations apply to charter schools as well?

    • Kathryn Baron replied

      on March 13, 2013 at 1:48 pm

      Sue,
      Yes, they do apply to charters.

  2. Kim said

    on March 13, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    Did they clarify about summer school fees charged by local education foundations? I can’t remember if that ACLU lawsuit was related to this one or not. If so, what was the ruling on whether LEFs can charge fees for summer school?

    • Kathryn Baron replied

      on March 13, 2013 at 8:11 pm

      Kim,
      I contacted Brooks Allen with the ACLU of Southern California to get an answer for you. He cited this section on pages 8-9 of the November 2011 guidance memo from the California Department of Education: “No statute specifically authorizes tuition for summer school. Therefore, tuition or any such fee or charge related to summer school is prohibited under Title 5 California Code of Regulations, Title 5, Section 350, which precludes charging fees for educational activities not specifically authorized by law.”

      He adds that questions regarding the legality of specific summer school programs operated by local education foundations in conjunction with local school districts are best directed to the local school district’s counsel because the analysis is very fact specific.

      • Kim replied

        on March 14, 2013 at 9:26 am

        thank you for asking!

      • navigio replied

        on March 14, 2013 at 12:03 pm

        He adds that questions regarding the legality of specific summer school programs operated by local education foundations in conjunction with local school districts are best directed to the local school district’s counsel because the analysis is very fact specific.

        If we have to do that the odds of getting an answer are slim. It would be useful instead to hear input from different communities/districts/board members on examples of what these criteria are. I expect there are many examples of programs where no one is realistically interested in contesting it because they risk losing access to the program altogether, even if it is ‘pay to play’ (I even expect many of those are locally subsidized for low-income families). That is of course what happens when the state tries to push more and more school funding responsibility onto individuals and communities.

        We know that the achievement gap is exacerbated over the summer but we dont fund summer school. We know that libraries correlate with achievement, but we cut those years ago. We know technology is essential for future jobs but we dont fund computer labs. Seems I’m in that parallel universe of insanity again… why do I see so many state legislators here..?

    • Suz replied

      on March 14, 2013 at 8:20 am

      Kim, are you talking about summer school operated on behalf of the district providing classes for credit? Or are you talking about summer enrichment programs operated by the LEF using district facilities?

      • Kim replied

        on March 14, 2013 at 9:30 am

        Both.

        From Kathryn’s reply, I can tell that the “clarifications” about allowable fees is not a more current update to the issue around LEF’s and summer schools charging fees. My understanding is that there are very specific criteria that establishes an LEF’s independence from a school district that makes those fees allowable or not, which is why we are directed to seek counsel (since each situation is so specific).

  3. Paul said

    on March 13, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    Sue, there is fascinating information about charter school rules at the end of the “separate regulations” link in the main article.

    The state recommends sticking to particular fees that are explicitly authorized by law. Since charter schools are exempt from large parts of the Education Code, they happen to be exempt from some of the provisions that authorize fees!

    • Kathy Baron replied

      on March 14, 2013 at 9:08 am

      Here’s the specific language that Paul is referring to:

      Ed. Code Section 47605(d) specifically prohibits a charter school from charging tuition,
      but does not mention fees or other charges. Charter schools are exempt from most laws
      governing school districts (Ed. Code Section 47610). However, the California
      Constitution, which is the highest law of the state, cannot be rendered inapplicable by
      the Legislature. Therefore, the free school guarantee of the California Constitution,
      Article IX, Section 5, applies to charter schools.

      Only some Education Code sections specifically authorizing fees have explicitly been
      made applicable to charter schools. Charter schools may only charge fees authorized
      by those Education Code sections that have been made explicitly applicable to charter
      schools. For example, charter schools can charge fees for food and field trips — subject
      to the restrictions on those fees as described in Section II, G and I, above — because
      the Education Code applies those provisions to charter schools.17 Conversely, charter
      schools cannot charge other “fees authorized by law” in Section II above, except to the
      extent that any such fees do not relate to an activity that is an integral component of
      public education.

  4. Renae said

    on March 15, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    RE: It doesn’t prohibit schools or parents from voluntary fundraising, said Bresee, but there’s not consensus on the parameters, those narrow gray spaces where a teacher or parent might cross the line between asking and mandating.

    There are no gray areas, there are only gray minded districts who think posting required legal verbiage is proof the district complies. Posting required legal language is for the purpose of informing the public of their rights, it’s up to the district to respond accordingly.
    The district (SVUSD) fails to comply when despite complaints of an extracurricular parent booster club routinely offer “opportunities” to “work off” the pre-determined “voluntary donation” with fundraisers and even crediting voluntary time to deduct from the amount, while keeping a balance left for the student to pay, and the district does nothing. The district was “ok” that the group made public all of the student’s fundraising efforts, and how much they had left to pay. NOT VOLUNTARY. no matter how many times the group may hand out a letter stating otherwise.
    Another way a district fails to comply is to allow retalaition against a parent who complains. Parent filed a formal uniform complaint with the SVUSD, 2 months later the same issue arises leading to the district forcing a coach to resign.
    The district discards their responsibility to protect the parent complainant’s identity and blatantly allows the parent booster club to publicly chastise the parent and enlists students to spread the same at school and social media for complaining, providing harassment for both the parent and her student.
    The gray area appears when a legal advisor attempts to reinterpret the law.

  5. Karen said

    on September 4, 2013 at 9:36 am

    Does this ruling also apply to PTA membership dues? Our principal said we have to word our registration materials as “donations” rather than payments even for membership dues if the parents wish to join the PTA. That doesn’t make sense to me because it is a national organization, not actually a school event.

    • Manuel replied

      on September 4, 2013 at 10:48 am

      Back when I was active in PTA, it was my understanding that PTA is a separate organization. It is a voluntary organization which is authorized by the local school board to be the liaison between the school/board and the community as its name implies.

      The PTA is a national non-profit corporation [aka a 501(c)(3)] and is entitled to collect dues from its members. (In fact, each local “association” has its own 501(c)(3) EIN number; this technically makes each local PTA an independent non-profit, even though it is affiliated with the state PTA and the state PTA is associated with the National PTA.) Money that the PTA collects from members and the general public is, by definition, a non-taxable donation in the eyes of the IRS.

      Why your principal is insisting that PTA behave differently is probably due to ignorance of the law and “The Fear of God” placed upon her/him by the unreasonable folks that run your district’s legal department.

      • el replied

        on September 4, 2013 at 1:41 pm

        It might be a matter of the principal and district wanting everyone to clearly understand that the PTA is an optional activity and that having your child enrolled does not obligate one to donate. I find it hard to fault school officials for wanting to make it extraordinarily clear.

        Our district has an independent PTSO (parent-teacher-student-organization) rather than a name-brand PTA to avoid the need for dues (which are paid to the national organization).

  6. Bea said

    on September 4, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    There’s a distinction between PTA dues and donations to your school PTA to support programs and activities. You collect nominal annual dues (on the order of $10 or $25) and pass them along as a membership payment to the state organization. Pretty sure that state by-laws indicate that only parents who have paid those dues may vote in your meetings.

    The way we used to handle it was to allocate a portion of all donations to “membership” and the rest into the funds that supported teacher grants, field trips, enrichment, technology, etc. That way anyone who donated was a member and able to vote.

    • navigio replied

      on September 4, 2013 at 1:55 pm

      One of the reasons PTA donations are tax deductible is the assumption is that it provides general, non-exclusionary services and benefits. As long as PTA continues to do that, it seems it would be within the law anyway. If there is concern that a group is breaking this law, its tax deductible status might also be in jeopardy.

      However, note that for many the ‘measure’ of acceptable behavior is ‘do it till they arrest me’. Within the public school environment, many barriers exist to fundraising for student benefit, so this stance makes some sense; sometimes even when district staff indicates otherwise. If something is unclear, speak with your local BoE member in charge of policies and bylaws. Usually the goal is to limit liability, not to prohibit fundraising. So they should work with you to figure out how to make things right, assuming something is not.

  7. K Davis said

    on October 2, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    This law has been in effect for a while now, and I’m wondering when my children’s school district will start abiding by the law? In the past month my sons teachers are having mandatory worksheet printout printed at home or they loose points, a band teacher that is expecting $195 mandatory direct donation and if we don’t pay he doesn’t go on field trips, a pe teacher that is giving out 5 free ‘A’s for participation in a paid event, a band teacher that sent out a notice saying that my son is required to have one of the following at home: a bell kit, a piano or a keyboard, a practice pad or snare drum and drum sticks and I’m wondering what is legal and what is not?

    • el replied

      on October 3, 2013 at 12:19 am

      Your school district should have a Uniform Complaint Form. This is where you make your formal complaint.

      http://www.cde.ca.gov/re/cp/uc/
      http://www.aclusocal.org/cases/doe-v-california/school-fees/

      If you believe you have been charged an illegal fee or have been required to purchase materials that should have been provided by your school, you may file a complaint with the principal of the school.

      You may file an anonymous complaint, but if you do, the school will not be able to contact you to ask follow-up questions or to request additional information, so you should be certain that your complaint contains all of the information necessary to prove that the school charged an illegal fee.

      I heard about a situation in Salinas where parents were told the 6th grade kids had to sell 500 candy bars to go on a science camp field trip, and further, the kids were told that failure to raise the funds meant (a) that child would not go and (b) that child would get a failing grade in science.

      One would hope these things would resolve themselves, but if they persist, please do file the complaint. That is why it is there.

      Good luck.

      • el replied

        on October 3, 2013 at 12:21 am

        By the way, for those of you more in the know, I can’t figure out how you file a complaint anonymously if you have to get the form from the principal. Is there a standard form online somewhere?

      • K Davis replied

        on October 3, 2013 at 7:41 am

        Thank you for a link to the uniform complaint form. The Williams complaint form that I found on the district site had no mention of fees, only lack of teachers and textbooks and school maintenance problems. I have already brought this to the attention of one principal and got no response. I did not want to have to go through the official complaint procedure, but it is looking like that will have to be my next course of action. Thank you!

  8. K Davis said

    on October 3, 2013 at 7:37 am

    Thank you for a link to the uniform complaint form. The Williams complaint form that I found on the district site had no mention of fees, only lack of teachers and textbooks and school maintenance problems. I have already brought this to the attention of one principal and got no response. I did not want to have to go through the official complaint procedure, but it is looking like that will have to be my next course of action. Thank you!

    • navigio replied

      on October 3, 2013 at 7:48 am

      Unfortunately, must of the ‘policing’ that gets done is put onto parents. There are audits now and then, but for the most part, nothing happens unless parents force the issue. Personally, I think thats a bad thing because it puts parents in antagonistic relationships with their schools, principals and teachers.

      If it were me, I’d approach a board member. They have the ultimate responsibility. If they were non-responsive, i’d ask them publicly at a board meeting.

      Regarding the form, maybe ask CDE what form you should be expecting to have available from your district, then you can ask someone there for that. CDE is usually pretty good at responding to questions like that.

    • K Davis replied

      on October 3, 2013 at 8:10 am

      I guess that got posted twice…sorry!

  9. James said

    on November 8, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    Thanks for your article. I posted a comment with some questions, but included a copy here in case you’re no longer tracking that article. Thanks for any input!

    “Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy for the ACLU of Southern California, and you can’t have a field trip available only for those who pay. Allen said it’s all or nothing; either the school raises enough money for everyone, or no one goes.”

    Let’s say a district has several schools and each school has several classes. Each class voluntarily raises funds to go on a field trip. Some meet their target, while others do not, but as a whole, the school does NOT raise enough money for every class to go and have exhausted all fund raising efforts. Can everyone in the classes who did raise enough go, while the classes who did not meet their goal not go? Will it be some or all of the student at this school that will not be going?

    If another school in the district has raised enough funds so that everyone at that school can go on the trip, can they go?

    Would the outcomes be different for a week long overnight outdoor camp? EC 35335 pertains to school camp programs. Are there other statues that would be relevant?

    Thanks for any comments!

  10. Emma said

    on June 10, 2014 at 1:42 pm

    So if my child comes home with a brown envelope stapled to her homework journal every three to four weeks, with the word “Due €100″ on it, it’s illegal? We pay for school books, printing costs etc as well as school trips etc.

    • el replied

      on June 10, 2014 at 2:27 pm

      Emma: In California, yes, those envelopes would not be legal. (We don’t usually get asked for contributions in €, either.)

      California kids are entitled to a free public education. You cannot refuse to educate them if their parents don’t send money for books, supplies, or trips. If it’s a required mainline school activity, than the school cannot require payment.

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