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California Suit Challenges Student Fees

A lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union challenges hundreds of fees charged by California public schools for classroom materials and extracurriculal activities. The suit says such fees violate the California Constitution's guarantee of free public education.

"Students who are unable to pay the fees or purchase the materials are disadvantaged academically and overtly humiliated by teachers and school officials," says the suit filed Friday in Los Angeles County Superior Court on behalf of two students. The suit alleges that one of the plaintiffs, identified as Jane Doe, was instructed not to highlight in borrowed books her family could not afford to purchase and was asked for an exam fee in front of other students.

Doe's unspecified Orange County school district required her to pay more than $440 annually in classroom and other fees, says the suit, which seeks class-action status and was organized by the ACLU of Southern California. The suit names the state as the main defendant, alleging that the state's "failure to monitor and ensure its public school districts' compliance with the free school guarantee" that has encouraged the proliferation of fees.

There is no official response to the suit yet, but in this article in today's New York Times, a lawyer for the San Diego Unified School District suggests that some fees listed on school Web sites may be a case of outdated information, but that others are probably not in compliance with state law.

Given tight school budgets, more schools nationwide have turned to fees to balance their budgets, and the California case is not the first court challenge. In 2006, the Indiana Supreme Court struck down a school district's $20 activity fee as a violation of the state constitution's free school guarantee, as Education Week reported here.

On his State EdWatch blog here, Education Week's Sean Cavanagh also writes about the lawsuit.

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