The California affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit against the State of California and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger today for allowing school districts throughout the state to charge fees for books and other essential educational supplies. This practice violates the California Constitution which, since 1879, has guaranteed children a free education.

The California affiliates include the ACLU affiliates in Southern California, Northern California, and San Diego & Imperial Counties. The law firm Morrison & Foerster is co-counsel on the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, follows an investigation by the ACLU/SC that uncovered a widespread practice among school districts of forcing students to purchase textbooks, workbooks, and assigned novels to matriculate in academic courses. School districts also charged students to take Advanced Placement examinations, even though completing these examinations is a course requirement and affects students’ grades. 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.

“School districts know they cannot charge students for an education; this practice was struck down by the California Supreme Court in 1984,” said Ramona Ripston, Executive Director of the ACLU/SC. “The court said no to pay-to-play then, and it should be no different now.”

Illegal school fees levied against students who strived to be successful in school caused a great academic disadvantage, and the suit alleges that some students who could not afford to pay the illegal fees were overtly humiliated by teachers and school officials. In one incident, a student’s Spanish teacher wrote the teenager’s name on the board because she could not pay for assigned workbooks. The school required this student, who wants to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, to pay $440 annually in course and uniform fees. This was an extreme financial burden for the student’s family.

“The idea of educating every child at public expense ranks with political democracy as one of the United States’ great original social contributions,” said Mark Rosenbaum, Chief Counsel of ACLU/SC. “Each of these ideas rests on a hallowed belief that every child is capable of reaching his or her fullest potential only when we encourage and honor accomplishment based on merit and hard work and disavow class distinctions.”

Another student, who also requested anonymity, was required to pay for a workbook for English class, foreign language workbooks, science lab manuals, and a school-issued agenda, which he could not afford.

The ACLU investigation, while not exhaustive, found 40 school districts that openly violate the state constitution by posting on school websites fees students must pay to participate in educational programs. It is likely that many more school districts are charging similar fees. Some examples of the fees found in the investigation include:

  • All public high schools in the Tustin Unified School district in Orange County charge students fees for art courses, music courses, automotive technology, fashion design, interior design and website development;
  • Arcadia High School in Los Angeles County charges students fees for art and music courses;
  • California Academy of Math and Science in Long Beach Unified School District in Los Angeles County charges students fees for physical education uniforms that they are required to wear; and
  • California High School in Contra Costa County requires students to purchase foreign language workbooks and a locker lock from the school.