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SCVNews.com | Hart School District Eyes Student-Fee Prohibition | 08-23-2011
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A state senate committee is poised to approve legislation Thursday that could profoundly impact the bottom lines of school districts throughout California.

Assembly Bill 165 would make it clear that the constitutional guarantee of a free education means school districts can’t charge fees for students to participate in school programs – whether it’s supplemental textbooks or football uniforms.

“Pupils shall not be charged fees, including security deposits, or be required to purchase materials or equipment, to participate in a class or an extracurricular activity,” the bill states.

The new law is a key component of a settlement agreement between the ACLU and the state. In 2010 the ACLU filed suit alleging that the state had failed to ensure educational equality because it had allowed its public school districts to require fees for access to certain educational services. As a result, the state “sanctions a dual school system which deliberately favors students from families of means over students from disadvantaged households,” the ACLU claimed in the lawsuit.

The William S. Hart Union High School District – which was not party to the lawsuit – is keeping a keen eye on the resulting legislation as it moves through Sacramento.

“(The settlement agreement) will result in actions affecting all California school districts,” said Hart District Superintendent Rob Challinor.

“For the Hart School District, we will certainly remain vigilant in helping to ensure that every family knows that a student’s participation in activities is not contingent upon fundraising or the payment of fees,” he said.

Under the new law, that vigilance would extend to officially sanctioned booster clubs on each school campus. The school district would have to ensure that students are not denied access to programs if they fail to sell enough chocolate bars or magazine subscriptions.

It also extends to anyone acting on a school’s behalf, and to required materials even if they aren’t purchased from the school and the administration doesn’t know about it. For instance, according to the Senate analysis of the bill, it applies even if “an athletics coach required pupils to purchase team uniforms – which would be illegal – (and the school district) never received any money.”

Further, the bill prohibits school districts from charging or otherwise requiring students to spend money, including a security deposit, for “a lock, locker, book, class apparatus, musical instrument, uniform, or other materials or equipment.”

The bill would require school superintendents to “determine whether an unlawful pupil fee has been or is being charged in the current fiscal year,” and establishes a formal complaint procedure for students wrongfully charged.

If it’s determined that an illegal fee has been imposed, the school district would have to reimburse the money – even if the district wasn’t the recipient. The legislative analysis acknowledges that the reimbursement would be “actually a new cost” to the school district in the team-uniform example.

Booster club fundraisers are vital to the success of programs in the Santa Clarita Valley, and the Hart District is determined to keep them going.

“The harsh reality of public education funding cuts and mounting operational costs compel us to identify alternative ways that we can allow parents to contribute to their child’s education,” Challinor said. “The simple truth is that offering a full spectrum of comprehensive programs including music, arts, dance, athletics, cheerleading, yearbook, photography, theatre, clubs and associations extends beyond the limited funds that any district receives from the state.

“We are resolved in our commitment to allow parents and community members to continue supporting programs that they find essential to their student’s success in school, and student participation is not and will never be contingent upon donations,” he said.

The agreement between the ACLU and the state also called for the drafting of new regulations, and until those regulations are handed down from Sacramento, the Hart District can’t know what specific action it should take, Challinor said.

“Parents remain able to collect donations on a voluntary basis to support education enrichment programs,” he said. “Every student is provided full access to district programs and activities. Participation will never be based on ability to pay.”

AB 165 passed the state Assembly on a 50-17 vote June 2. It’s set for a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Thursday.

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