Priceless: Free cost of education

Bill would crackdown on illegal school fees
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Graphing calculator for your child’s algebra class: $120. Your daughter’s cheerleader uniforms: $1,000. Lab fees for AP physics: $150. Being required to purchase these items by your child’s school: Unconstitutional.

It’s been nearly a year to the day since the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit against the State of California and former Gov. Schwarzenegger for not stopping school districts from charging fees for everything from field trips to textbooks, and from band uniforms to art supplies.

A bill on Gov. Brown’s desk would essentially settle the lawsuit. AB 165 by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-South Gate) would create a complaint process for parents and students who believe they’re being charged illegal fees. It would also require districts to conduct annual compliance audits.

Humiliation in school

An informal investigation by the ACLU, compiled in a paper called Pay-To-Learn, found at least 45 school districts that were charging students for textbooks, workbooks, even novels for English class. Students who couldn’t afford them were often publicly embarrassed.

“Our clients had their names put up on the board and were singled out. It was really pretty shocking. They would be humiliated for not buying textbooks,” said Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy for the ACLU of Southern California.

In a YouTube video, one of the student plaintiffs, known as Jason Roe in the lawsuit, describes what happened when he didn’t have the money to buy a textbook. He said when the teacher asked the students to take out their books and noticed he didn’t have one, she asked, “Have you paid for one yet And I said, ‘No.’ She said that in front of the whole class and it didn’t feel too great.”

Roe said he also had his grade docked in Spanish because his notebook wasn’t the brand the teacher wanted the students to buy; his was less expensive. And when he couldn’t afford a compass for math class, the teacher offered to rent him one for $2.50 a week.

Districts should know better

ACLU attorneys say Article 9, section 5 of the California Constitution is unequivocal with regard to charging for public school.

“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.”

But just in case that’s too vague, the State Supreme Court clarified the intent. In 1984, in the case Hartzell v. Connell, former Chief Justice Rose Bird wrote: “The free school guarantee lifts budgetary decisions concerning public education out of the individual family setting and requires that such decisions be made by the community as a whole. Once the community has decided that a particular educational program is important enough to be offered by its public schools, 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.”

Still, there has been confusion over legal language and nuances. “The real issue is how things were stated,” said Steve Bolman, interim Superintendent of Petaluma Joint Union High School District. One of their schools was on the ACLU list for charging for choir robes. “Can parents be requested to make donations to support activities?”

The answer is yes, as long as they’re not strong-armed into it.

“Like many districts across the state we had well meaning parents, booster groups, and even teachers who maybe didn’t have clear guidance,” said Marcus Walton, communications director for the Capistrano Unified School District, which was also cited by the ACLU.

Since then, said Walton, administrators have been writing new guidelines for staff and fundraising groups. But some issues are so specific they make splitting hairs seem simple. For example: Two art students fire their clay sculptures. One takes the sculpture home, the other leaves it at school. Does the student who takes it home have to pay for the clay? Walton says yes.

Even if Gov. Brown signs the bill, Walton may be right in thinking that many of these questions will “have to be handled on a classroom to classroom basis.”

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27 Comments

  1. Question for the audience: The principal of a California public charter school sends a personal letter to a number of parents who did not contribute to a voluntary fundraising campaign.  The ask is explicit: $3,000 per student per year.
     
    In the letter, parents are told “I know you have not been able to make a financial contribution to **** yet this year”; “If you don’t make a tax-deductible gift to the Annual Fund this year, your share of that burden will be passed along to other families” and “I firmly believe that in education, you get what you pay for: there are no bargains.”
     
    The school publishes a list of donors by name and donation level.  In a small school community, it is widely known who gave, who gave how much and who did not give.  The principal is mailing personal letters directly to parents who did not make this contribution.  Does this impact parents’ interaction with the school with regard to concerns about their students?
     
    What parents are not told is that approximately 50% of the annual fund raising campaign yield is added to the school’s cash reserves each year. Ed code requires that charter schools maintain a 5% cash reserve.  This school now carries a cash reserve of nearly 70% of its annual operating expenses.  Yet parents are exhorted to donate: “We know our families are grateful for the quality educational experience that **** provides, but the fact is that it just cannot be provided with public funding alone.”
     
    The situation raises some interesting questions.  There are no stated penalties for a failure to participate, but parents are subject to collections calls from fellow parents and letters from the principal.  The community will know whether or not a parent took on “your share of the burden”. How many parents, knowing they may receive this letter, donate out of intimidation? Is shame a legitimate fundraising tactic in a public school? Or is that not addressed by this bill or the ACLU suit?
     
    Should a school be required to disclose the size of its reserve and its intended purpose? Should non-restricted donations be co-mingled with state and federal revenues?

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  2. An expected donation of $3,000? Holy cow. Our entire elementary school does not raise that much money across all the students.
     
    Our school somewhat humbly asks for kleenex.
     
    Clear guidance I think is good. I am glad that for the most part at our school, the only item that has been required is a backpack, and the school has funds to buy backpack for kids who can’t afford them.  The rest needs to be done on the NPR model, minus the guilt. As in, “Thank you for contributing if you can afford it; your generous gift helps the whole school.”
     
    And fundamentally, any time you see a comparison showing that the top schools are funded the same as the poor schools, remember that these kinds of funds are not counted.
     
    The real problem, of course, is THAT THE LEGISLATURE IS SUPPOSED TO FUND THE SCHOOLS. That they are not, that we are freaking not considering the State of California as a stable source of income, is precisely the source of this problem.

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  3. @Bea:
    ” Ed code requires that charter schools maintain a 5% cash reserve.  This school now carries a cash reserve of nearly 70% of its annual operating expenses.”

    70% is an impressive amount to be carrying in these lean times. However, I would say 5% is too low for rational operation. That 5% wouldn’t even cover one monthly payroll, and right now the state owes the districts a lot of money and is constantly threatening to withhold more. A prudent reserve would probably be in the 10-12% range, and that would not count reserves that you may have earmarked for maintenance and other specific projects.

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  4. If I were a parent of a child in the school described by Bea I think I would pull my child out, or not, really depending upon whether the value of the education is worth putting up with saying no to the “hard sell” for donations.  

    Charter schools are required to produce quarterly statements and conduct annual audits – their financial information is already public.  I am not sure what you mean by explaining the “intended purpose” of reserves.  I sat on a board for a small district, and we built a very large reserve, because of it the district has fared well during these financial hard times.  I don’t recall explaining the purpose of our reserve formally, we did discuss the merits of planning for hard economic times, particlualry given California’s volatile income tax scheme.  I am thankful for our students that we acted responsibly.

    Should donations be allowed to comingle with other funds?  Why not?  If you established a prohibition of such for all public schools, you’d create chaos.  Some model disticts, like Long Beach (for example), have benefited greatly from philanthropic donations. 

    Question; why are you withholding the name of the school?  You’ve made some pretty strong statments, but provided no evidence that the activity you describe actually exists.  Furthermore, disclosing the school would allow for a thoughtful analysis by those of us whom you have asked to make a judgement.  How do I know if they are making poor financial decisions if I have never seen their financials?  How can I determine if their actions merit a massive change in state policy when I don’t know how they are using donations?  What evidence is there that parents or children involved with the school feel ashamed if they don’t fully participate in the request for donations? 

    Assumptions may be made by the information you have provided, any serious discussion is impoosible without some facts.

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  5. The school is Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz. It’s previously been challenged about its selective student enrollment. A copy of the letter requesting the $3000 is @ http://charterschoolscandals.blogspot.com/2010/05/pacific-collegiate-charter-school.html
     
    It sounds like a private little club to me.
     
    By the way, the school’s EIN is 770485136. Form 990s for 2002-2010 are posted @ http://nccsdataweb.urban.org/PubApps/search.php

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  6. I have a copy. It was made public at our COE meeting on 9/8./11.  It comes from Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz–appalling.
    April 28, 2011
    Mr. **** and Ms. ****
    ****
    ****
    Dear *** and ***,
    Everyone knows we’re a public school, and no one is unaware of the financially challenging times we’re all experiencing these days. Whether you’re a family or a school, every penny counts, right? I am currently working with the Finance Committee on next year’s budget. With that said, while I know you have not been able to make a financial contribution to PCS yet this year, I am writing today to urge your participation in this year’s Annual Fund.
    I don’t mean to appear insensitive in making this request. We know our families are grateful for the quality educational experience that PCS provides, but the fact is that it just cannot be provided with public funding alone. If you don’t make a tax-deductible gift to the Annual Fund this year, your share of that burden will be passed along to other families, and we will be that much more limited in what we can offer, whether it be through staff compensation or program resources and support.
    Of course, your decision not to participate in this year’s Annual Fund Drive might be rooted in other issues or concerns. If that is the case, I hope you will follow up and let me know. I have yet to work in a school that could not improve, and that effort always begins with communication and understanding. I hope you will feel free to arrange a meeting with me at any time to talk through troubling issues.
    I firmly believe that in education, you get what you pay for: there are no bargains. The great success of the PCS Annual Fund over the years stands as proof of that assertion; it makes the difference between excellence and mediocrity. All of us are being careful with our money today, so why not make PCS your philanthropic priority? Yes, we ask for $3,000 per student, but we also know that not everyone can dig that deep. So do what you can – please. We need you, and every family like you, to contribute what you can to the PCS Annual Fund Drive.
    Please help us get to the fiscal finish line on June 30 without compromise to our great program. Know that every gift – no matter the size – makes a financial difference, and that every contributing family joins a large circle of community support. PCS is special – join us in keeping it that way!
    Thanks for your support,
    Archie Douglas
    Principal

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  7. The only school I know of that asks for that much money is Pacific Collegiate located in Santa Cruz.  I’ve been curious to know how successful any school would be in obtaining those funds and what methods they might use in the process.  I wonder how many families don’t even consider the school because of the potential shame in not being able to pay.  Parents would have to be pretty brave to send their children to that school knowing full well they couldn’t afford the “donation”.

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  8. I don’t think anything that principal wrote is untrue. That’s good development activity. Aggressive, sure; unfair, no. There’s no public shaming, just good communication of what can happen if I don’t do what I can. It doesn’t rise to the level of “strong-arming”, in my opinion.
    In fact, if I honestly couldn’t afford the donation, I’d be pleased that the principal was doing his level best to get donations from those that honestly could, but hadn’t yet made the commitment. Good job.

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  9. Ah, I see someone has posted the letter and identified the school.  That is correct.
    @Paul: Participation is something on the order of 80% of parents.  About 400 families contributed $771,000 last year.
     
    @Ed: Parents are told that the school depends on their contributions for day to day operations, but in fact each year half of their donations are added to an accumulated reserve. An annual report indicates that the school breaks even; the actual financial reports show the excess revenue annually.  Parents give because they believe the school needs that contribution to serve their child, that year.
    The school has an economic uncertainty reserve of 17.5% percent — wise in these times.  The balance is simply accumulating.

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  10. $1,000 for a cheerleader uniform???
    If the schools pay for that with their very limited budgets, that’s $1,000 they don’t have for teachers, science equipment, etc.
     

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  11. Very tough issue. Pushing even basic operating expenses off-budget to parents, PTAs and foundations has been a matter of survival for many districts. The practice is ubiquitous, and if this AB 165 passes, it will do nothing to create more funding, it will increase administrative burdens and likely drive some of this activity underground. I’m not saying I like it – it’s like death by a thousand cuts for parents like me.

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  12. ” I wonder how many families don’t even consider the school because of the potential shame in not being able to pay.”

    Good point, Paul. It strikes me as an inappropriate letter for a public school principal to send out.

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  13. I don’t think the article author was talking about the charter donation problem, although that is an interesting issue/potential new criticism of some charter operations.
    I agree that deferring many costs to students can create a burden for students and families.  I participated in groups that required uniforms, and participated in many fundraising events to get them, both for myself and my classmates.  Uniforms could be re-used, and handed down, and the larger the group the more likely new members would not have to fundraise for new uniforms.  School-logo’d uniforms like we used in XC and Track were issued from the school like a textbook, cared for by the student, and returned at the end of the season.  Cheerleading outfits were a bit more difficult as they were more form-fitting/involved underwear, but also involved more fundraising the former.
    But el is right- this wouldn’t be happening if our schools weren’t chronically underfunded.  And I don’t want choir, etc. to get cancelled in the age of deep, deep budget cuts cutting elective opportunities period, and test score concerns cutting into electives for remediation, because schools aren’t given flexibility. Fundraising, boosters, loaners, etc. were needed to make these opportunities available in less leaner times, and I can’t imagine how we’d “reform” without killing opportunities for students.
     

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  14. I would like to remind everyone that when the free part of public education was put into the state constitution over a hundred years ago, schools and teachers were doing a lot less with a lot less. I personally think schools should cover most of the extras (instruments, sports equipment, etc), but I also believe that all families should pay a flat enrollment fee ($1,000 a year perhaps?), simply because people do not value what is free.

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  15. @John Leyba, there has to be something added to that last statement.  I think most people love their mothers :)  Yeah, I’m using an extreme point for purposes of illustration.  But I hear your point, our society is trending to the monetization of values.

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  16. Throughout my many years as an involved urban public school parent, I’ve always been given to understand that it was improper, if not illegal, for principals and teachers to solicit donations (but have never checked to confirm this). PTAs, PTOs and (where they exist) school foundations should do the soliciting, as we’ve always been given to understand.
     
    Any info on that?
     
    That’s aside from the high-pressure heavy-handedness of the Pacific Collegiate pitch, of course, and its substantial target amount.

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  17. AB 165 may be just what California needs to put some teeth in charter oversight law. At least for fiscal issues.
    Pacific Collegiate School, whose principal wrote the  demand letter for “tuition”  of $3000.00 as mentioned by several above, is not credential or certificated. Nor are any members of the appointed board. Most are from private schools with no public school experience, as is the Principal Archie Douglas.
    Deregulation  and lax oversight since 2001 has led to the near  death of our economy
    Charter School Association attempts to “deregulate” public education may have a similar outcome on public education unless chartering agencies such as the local COE Board and Superintendent stop being blinded by test scores and do their duty to follow  Ed Code to keep the public in public schools.

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  18. Ever since SB 90 and Prop 13 in the 1970s, communities have lost the ability to decide which educational programs are worth paying for.  We are now forced to the lowest common denominator for school funding.  My sister lives in South Orange, NJ, a community with high property taxes and excellent schools.  Don’t like it?  Well, move down the road to West Orange, with lower taxes but worse schools.  Californians no longer have this ability to choose how much to invest in education jurisdiction by jurisdiction.
    Would the ACLU prefer that schools not offer music, AP Physics, and field trips?  That’s the ugly reality of the choices we’re facing.  Someone has to pay for these things if we want to provide them to our children.

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  19. Check out that trackback. It says the Santa Cruz County office of Education is reviewing the legality of the letter and investigating the high reserves.

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  20. @Katie – I don’t think anyone objects to voluntary donations, which are completely welcome (and desperately needed, always). The issue is when kids are told they can’t participate in a school activity unless they pay money.
     
    It’s okay for parents to get together to fundraise money to go on a living history field trip. It’s not okay for anyone to state or imply that a child who does not bring a check for $100 cannot go. It’s not okay for a teacher to dock a student’s math grade because she hasn’t brought in her $125 calculator.
     
    So if YOU want your kids to go on that living history field trip, yes, you need to fundraise enough so that ALL the kids can go, not just pay for yours.

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  21. @Katie, @el – I have to agree with Katie on this. Parents and communities can come together to define – and fund – the public education they want for their children. In my community, voluntary funding makes up more than a third of district revenue, and our outcomes are extraordinary. We invest in our schools aggressively – and it’s working. The state’s funding equation is just not going to buy the quality of program we expect – so we supplement voluntarily.
    But I also want to challenge the “free” meme entirely. In what sense is taxpayer-funded public education free? We can’t simultaneously call education ‘free’ and lament inadequate funding – while talking sensibly about increasing teacher pay and the need for supplemental fundraising. Our public schools are not free in any sense, so can we please drop this notion? It fosters unreal and unreasonable expectations and threatens to drag down all districts to the same minimal baseline. The state baseline is just a floor to build upon, and in times like these, local communities are called upon to do more of the building than in the past.
    Property owners pay most of the cost of public schools, and families and communities pitch in voluntarily above that. As I said above, I’m not entirely happy with the current band-aid funding model, but I know first hand that it can work – because it empowers districts and communities to choose for themselves what level of support they will provide to their schools above the state’s minimal baseline.

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  22. Schools can (and do) fundraise to offer music, field trips, and sports under this model – they just can’t insist that every child bring his own money from home. They can even say, “We need to raise an average of $100 per child to go on this trip.” Then the go-getter parents go out, organize fundraisers; parents who can, make up the difference; and the whole class goes. No one knows which students did not bring in a check. We all understand that some percentage will not.
     
    It’s not okay to exclude kids from AP Physics because they don’t have $125.
     
    We will talk all about achievement gaps in various places. I haven’t seen any cases where kids who are from families above the median income are doing poorly by any official measure. Kids who are homeless and from low income families need to go on those field trips MORE, not less, than kids who can afford them. If you think it is important for your child to go on that trip with a class, isn’t it appropriate to pull together the funds so they all can go?
     
    There’s nothing quite like chaperoning a group of kids and seeing their awe when they see the ocean for the first time on a school field trip.

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  23. Yes, @Joe, we can simultaneously call for a free public education and lament inadequate funding.  What must must do is demand adequate funding for all of our schools.
     
    One child in four lives in poverty.  They live in communities that depend on that “baseline” state funding that you fear your district might be dragged down to.  Every child deserves a great neighborhood school, one that is academically strong (and supportive) and enriching.  We know that outside of family income, a good education is the strongest ladder out of poverty.
     
    Gosh, it’s awesome that your community can raise another 30% in donations above what your schools receive from the rest of us.  But Joe, I’m concerned about the 25% of our kids that don’t live in your neighborhood.
     
    Here’s what the ACLU has to say:
    “The suit contends that this discriminating practice against lower-income children will result in an unfair system where only the wealthy will be able to afford an education that is constitutionally supposed to be free to all regardless of economic status.”

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  24. if Joe’s school district really is all that, their property taxes are probably helping to support other districts rather than Bea having to support them so you could argue that they are helping improve education in other districts of lesser means

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