ACLU sues over HS course fees

Violation of right to a free education

American Civil Liberties Union affiliates in California have sued Gov. Schwarzenegger and the state over class fees, from textbooks to AP exams to gym uniforms, that dozens of school districts routinely charge students.

The class-action lawsuit, filed Friday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, charges that mandatory course-related fees violate the state constitution’s guarantee of a free public education and a state court decision, Hartzell vs. Connell, in 1984, also banning fees for other school activities, which districts appear to be ignoring.

The suit asks for an immediate injunction against charging students for any costs for credit courses and for the state to create regulations and an enforcement system to ensure districts comply. ACLU attorneys for  student plaintiffs also plan to send cease-and-desist orders to the 32 school districts named in the lawsuit.

The list is far from comprehensive. The ACLU compiled it by surfing for fees on high school web sites. A sampling includes $125-$150 for lab fees at Northwood High in Irvine, $86 for AP exams that many high schools require as part of a student’s grade; $20 to $25 for arts courses in Arcadia High; $535 for a cosmetology class at Calaveras High; $20 for foreign language workbooks at Dougherty Valley High in San Ramon; and $5 for PE locker at Half Moon Bay High.

The 24-page complaint cites the cases of two unidentified plaintiffs. It alleges Jane Doe was embarrassed in class because she was late in paying fees while Jason Roe started school without a chemistry manual and a Spanish workbook because his family could afford only some of his fees. What the suit cannot determine is the number of low-income students who may have avoided college-required A-G courses because of fees or students who were less competitive in applying to college because they couldn’t afford fees for extracurricular activities, from band to sports. The suit doesn’t incorporate those activities, only credit courses.

Some schools have been charging fees for years; others have raised them recently in response to budget cutbacks.

Mark Rosenbaum, legal director for the ACLU-Southern California, said districts’ hardship is no excuse. “It’s in the worst times that students without means need to be protected,” he said in an interview. “And now is the time to say that the system of financing schools in California is broken and needs to be reformed.”

The ACLU’s action is the latest of several funding-related lawsuits filed this year. The state PTA, attorneys for poor students and associations representing school boards and school administers filed Robles-Wong vs  California, challenging overall funding levels. Public Advocates, representing low-income students, filed a similar lawsuit. And Public Counsel Law Center has sued Los Angeles Unified over the disproportionately large teacher layoffs at low-income schools.

Some of the schools in the ACLU lawsuit make allowances for students who can’t afford course charges. But citing the Hartzell case, the complaint says, “a fee waiver for students who are unable to pay required fees or purchase assigned materials does not remedy the constitutional defect of such fees.”

Other schools refer to the charges as “requested contributions.” Rosenbaum said that new regulations would have to ensure that school fund-raising is not coercive and individuals who don’t make donations aren’t identified or singled  out.


  1. When the ACLU brings its liberalism to the California Education system, it surely makes me wonder whether or not they have done their homework. Research will adequately inform the ACLU that California schools have had devastating budget cuts over the last five years. I have worked in public education for 28 years; I have seen two of my children graduate from public schools and the last child expects to graduate in 2012.  All three of my children have participated in a sports, cheer, clubs, ROP classes, PE, and similiar activities where I, as a parent, had an expected contribution towards the activity. Wake up, ACLU, not everything is free. People have to work and PAY FOR items. I can’t just decide that I would like to go to Nordstrom and demand equal clothing, etc., for myself because I feel discriminated against because I don’t earn what others do. 
    Define ‘education should be free’. It IS! Kids who take AP test are earning college credit. Compare an $86.00 test to the price of a course. It doesn’t take much thinking to see that the AP test fee is smaller by comparison than a course fee. These students choose to take these courses; they are not required. They do not HAVE to take the AP exam; it is elective. If they are income qualified, the test fee is lowered substantially or waived altogether.  School districts have been working with children for years bringing more rigorous course work to students. It is not unreasonable to expect that those who use a service should share the financial cost of that service.
    For sports, cheer, band and the like: I FEEL LIKE THE ACLU has accomplished just the opposite of what they indtended to accomplish. Now, we’re all equally financially disabled. For YEARS, generous parents have been paying not only for their own children, but for those in need as well. Now, with no ‘fees’ charged, football programs are folding, band programs are cripled and cheer programs are in the poorhouse. We can’t make parents participate in fundraisers, we can’t charge them for uniforms that are tailored and personalized for their child, and we can’t charge them to pay a coach. Does the ACLU expect school districts to magically fund millions of dollars in programs which exist soley to enrich the lives of children? Principals have whittled their school budgets down from the mighty redwood to spring willows. THere IS no extra money. The money for these programs has come from working and non working parents for years. Now, I am being discriminated against because I work to pay my student’s fees while others, who have been professionally receiving everything for free (breakfast, lunch, WIC, GAIN, welfare, PE clothes, etc.)are in line to receive even more for absolutely no expected contribution. Now, all students have nothing. Congratulations. You managed to make things markedly worse than they ever were before. God forbid that we ask parents to WORK for what their children receive. Go  ahead, ACLU; you must be flush with cash. You fund the parents who don’t want to work for what their children get.  I for one, am tired of working 2 jobs, supporting my family of 5 and PAYING MY WAY for what we receive. But, I’d rather be tired of working than tired of sitting at home everyday expecting the ‘government’ and ‘someone else’ to pay my way!

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  2. I think the ACLU should be disband. ACLU is a major part of the problem in America. But get this ,they are funded by the Governement.So since the governement must make major cut backs in the budget/debit, STOP ALL FUNDING TO THE ACLU.
    I teach at a Tech school,which the classes are a choice for the students. Who wants to wear medical uniforms and shoes after someone else has worn them for a semester?
    Same thing with a stethascope. And who is going to wash the uniforms when they are returned at the end of the semster?This is a sanitation and safety issue. And alot of times we don’t get the books back that we must loan the students.
    What next?

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