Sometimes, the wrong thing is going on in broad daylight, but you don't notice it, really, because that's just the way things have always been.
A message left from a parent on our legal intake line expressing concern about the costs of attending public school got us curious. We took a cursory glance at school websites throughout the state, and found a stunning laundry list of fees levied at public schools for everything from textbooks to lab supplies, even though the California Supreme Court made clear more than 20 years ago that such fees violated the state constitution.
Digging deeper, we heard heartbreaking tales from parents and students of humiliating public shaming by school administrators and teachers trying to force payment.
That's not only illegal; it's also just plain wrong.  So, we got to work.
We filed our statewide class-action lawsuit challenging school fees in September, and reached a settlement yesterday. In lawsuit time, that's warp speed.
Our nation's public schools represent the highest and most revolutionary ideal of American democracy – that through education open on an equal basis to all, regardless of class and social status, every child can achieve his or her full potential as consequence of merit and hard work.
Free public schools are the machinery by which the American dream is made accessible to all. More to the point, in California it's a constitutionally-ordained machinery, and has been since 1879. The state supreme court confirmed this in 1984.
Yet public schools continued charging students for basic, mandated necessities -- a practice so ubiquitous most never thought to question a demand for $2 to use a protractor here or a fee to take a test there. Download a pdf of our Pay To Learn report for a look at how just how widespread this is. Then  watch "Jason Roe" and his mother discuss their struggles trying to keep up with the ballooning costs of what is supposed to be a free education.
These illegal school fees discriminate against lower-income families, who should not have their children penalized and denied access to classes and school programs just because they're not wealthy.
Yesterday's settlement will stop that. Under the settlement, the State will seek legislation clarifying that all school fees charged to families, be they for mandated academic course materials or equipment and uniforms required for extracurricular activities such as sports or bands. The settlement also provides an annual audit and enforcement process, with meaningful accountability systems including financial penalties for school districts that persist in charging students illegal fees.  Parents also will be able to file complaints to challenge the imposition of fees as they arise.
We will ask the Court to give preliminary approval for the settlement to go forward, and then we will get to work seeking passage of the legislation.
Although this settlement will ensure school districts do not charge fees in the future, it is important to keep in mind the context in which public schools are operating today.  The fact that public schools felt free to pursue this plainly illegal funding speaks to the broad dysfunction that is California's system of financing public schools. Instead of ensuring that schools are provided the resources necessary for a free and equal education, our state has repeatedly slashed public school funding, leaving educators to scramble desperately for funding sources - any funding sources - even if that source involves shaming a child in front of her classmates.
California used to be the crown jewel of the nation's public education system. Now we're at the bottom of the barrel. That's why it's critical to advocate to ensure our public schools receive from the State the resources necessary to provide every student an opportunity to succeed, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
The price of democracy is eternal vigilance, not whatever textbooks are retailing for on Amazon.
This suit settled so fast because everyone involved in this effort realized fixing this problem was the right thing to do. This swift resolution is a tribute to Gov. Schwarzenegger, Education Secretary Bonnie Reiss and State Board of Education President Ted Mitchell.
We are also grateful to our partners in this effort - the ACLU of Northern California, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, and the law firm of Morrison & Foerster, LLP.
"The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave." -- Thomas Jefferson.

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