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Calif. Moves Toward Banning Pay-to-Play School Sports

California moved one step closer to preventing schools from charging students to join sports teams or for other educational activities, as the state Assembly passed a bill on Thursday that now moves to the Senate.

The bill, which passed on a 50-17 vote, was modeled after the California Constitution, which requires the state to provide free public schooling to students. The bill argues that extracurricular pay-to-play fees violate the state's constitution.

In 1984, the state Supreme Court ruled that "educational opportunities must be provided to all students without regard to their families' ability or willingness to pay fees or request special waivers" in the case Hartzell v. Connell.

That hasn't stopped schools from implementing pay-to-play schemes, however. An investigation last summer by the San Diego Union-Tribune revealed multiple schools in the San Diego area that openly posted extra fees for students on their school websites.

In response, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit against California last September, saying that at least 40 schools in the state listed extracurricular fees on their websites. The ACLU and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a settlement to the case last December, which required schools to fully reimburse families for any pay-to-play fees and granted parents the right to challenge any illegal fees through a state-based complaint process.

At least one San Diego-based school continued to charge illegal fees after the settlement, according to lawyer Sally Smith.

This new bill, authored by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, seeks to outright end the practice of charging students for classes and/or extracurricular school activities. Schools would not be allowed to charge students fees for participation in sports (or other clubs), and would also be banned from requiring security deposits in exchange for musical instruments, books, or other school materials.

If enacted as currently written, the bill would apply to both regular public schools and charter schools, and would require schools to post notices about the new policies regarding educational fees by Jan. 1, 2012.

Michael P. Griffith, a school finance analyst at the Education Commission of the States, told the New York Times last September that California's pay-to-play debate was worth monitoring, given the constitutionality arguments.

"What's new here is that this is not about funding levels for education, but about whether districts are charging kids to get a public education," Griffith said. "That's a brand-new argument. I wouldn't be surprised to see groups in other states adopt the same line of reasoning."

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