The American Civil Liberties Union of California and the law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP today announced that they would dismiss a class action lawsuit filed against the State of California on behalf of public school students who had been charged fees as a condition of taking academic courses. The announcement follows Governor Jerry Brown’s September 29th signing of Assembly Bill 1575 (AB 1575), a bill authored by Assemblymember Ricardo Lara and sponsored by the ACLU of California.

AB 1575’s enactment represents a major victory in the student plaintiffs’ long-standing fight to ensure that California public school students are not charged school fees as a condition of participating in educational activities. Imposition of such fees violates the California Constitution which, since 1879, has guaranteed children in California a free public education.

“AB 1575 will provide the necessary guidance, notification, and accountability currently lacking in our educational system to identify and address illegal school fees,” said Brooks Allen, Director of Education Advocacy for the ACLU of Southern California. “We thank Assemblymember Ricardo Lara for his dedication and hard work on behalf of California’s public school students, and we commend Governor Brown for signing this critical legislation, which was supported by parents, teachers, administrators, school districts, and civil rights advocates. We also wish to thank the principal co-author of AB 1575, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, for his leadership.”

AB 1575 ensures that school administrators understand how they may fundraise successfully without infringing on students’ constitutional rights by requiring the California Department of Education to provide regular guidance for superintendents and administrators about the free schools guarantee. Additionally, to address instances where students are charged unconstitutional fees, AB 1575 modifies the uniform complaint process currently in place in all schools to allow for local resolution of parent and student concerns without costly litigation.

“Equal educational opportunity in free public schools is the bedrock of our democratic society, promising that every child will have a chance to achieve the American dream. AB 1575 ensures the ‘free schools’ guarantee is applied equally to all children in our state and remains a meaningful protection in our Constitution,” said Assemblymember Ricardo Lara.

The enactment of AB 1575 also resolves Doe v. State of California, a class action lawsuit filed by the California ACLU affiliates and Morrison & Foerster in September 2010 against the State and the State Board of Education, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and the California Department of Education. Earlier this year, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge rejected the defendants’ arguments that the case should be dismissed, concluding that the State has the ultimate authority and responsibility to ensure that school districts do not violate students’ fundamental right to a free public education. The lawsuit was prompted by an August 2010 investigation by the ACLU of California that uncovered a widespread practice among school districts of requiring students to pay fees and to purchase required materials for core academic courses.

“This legislation provides a state-wide mechanism to identify instances where students have been charged illegal fees and promptly puts an end to the practice,” said Dan Marmalefsky, a partner at Morrison & Foerster, which is working pro bono on the case. “The State will now play an active role in stopping illegal fees, which is precisely what we sought to accomplish when we filed this lawsuit.”

“This historic legislation guarantees for the first time that all California children will have a free, not fee public education, putting an end to the ‘pay to learn’ system that has operated illegally for decades,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU of Southern California. “AB 1575 stops the buck passing for California's budget crises from adults to children. California students should be reading books, not balancing them.”

In addition to broad support from student, parent, and teacher organizations, such as the California State PTA and California Federation of Teachers, AB 1575 was supported by numerous school districts and school administrator associations, including Los Angeles Unified School District, Riverside County School Superintendents’ Association, Association of California School Administrators, California Association of School Business Officials, and California Association of Suburban School Districts.