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Calif. Schools Must Put Fee-Complaint Systems in Place by Friday

By Friday, all California public schools need to have in place a system for complaints about potential violations of the state's guarantee to a free public education, under a law passed last fall.

In essence, the law prevents public schools (including charters and other alternative public schools) from charging students mandatory pay-to-play fees for interscholastic athletics, among other educational activities.

Since the late 1800s, Article IX, Sec. 5 of the California Constitution has required the state legislature to "provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each district." In 1984, the state Supreme Court ruled in Hartzell v. Connell that "educational opportunities must be provided to all students without regard to their families' ability or willingness to pay fees or request special waivers."

Not all schools were necessarily following that law, however. In 2010, an investigation by the San Diego Union-Tribune found a number of schools openly posting extra fees for students on their websites. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action against the state in September 2010 over the schools that charged students mandatory fees. The state reached a settlement with the ACLU in December of that year, contingent on the establishment of a "comprehensive monitoring and enforcement system" to ensure that schools weren't charging unlawful fees.

On Sept. 29, 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law, AB 1575, meant to identify and prevent schools from charging mandatory student fees. The law alters the existing uniform complaint procedures to allow parents or students concerned about the legality of a school fee to file a "complaint of noncompliance" with their school principal. Starting in the 2014-15 fiscal year, the state department of education must also provide guidance to school administrators regarding the state's free schools guarantee and the types of fees permitted in schools. (Voluntary donations, for instance, are still allowed.)

The passage of AB 1575 led to the resolution of the ACLU's lawsuit from two years prior. Under the new law, an "educational activity" includes both curricular and extracurricular activities.

Brown vetoed the predecessor of AB 1575 back in October 2011, saying it went "too far." It would have required every school in the state to use uniform complaint processes and to post notices about the complaint-resolution process in every classroom.

Of course, California isn't the only state grappling with budget cuts and pay-to-play fees. According to a 2009 survey from the National Federation of State High School Associations, 33 states had at least one school charging such fees.

In California and elsewhere, however, some districts have found creative ways to wiggle around pay-to-play fees for students.

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