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ACLU Files Lawsuit Over California Public School Fees

A public school education is supposed to be a free education, but a lot of California districts are straying from that basic principle and heaping fees on students, a new lawsuit alleges.

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in particular, for allegedly allowing schools systems to take part in that practice. The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, follows the publication of a report by the ACLU, which concluded that 40 school districts across the state were requiring fees from students seeking to take part in various educational programs. (Title of the report: "Pay-to-Learn.")

The civil liberties group says that districts are forcing students to buy textbooks, workbooks, and assigned novels, and charging them to take Advanced Placement exams, even though completing those tests is a course requirement that affects their grades.

The state's supreme court has struck down policies that allow schools to charge students for an education, the ACLU says. And the practice also violates the state's constitution, "which since 1879 has guaranteed children a free education," the group asserts.

"The idea of educating every child at public expense ranks with political democracy as one of the United States' great original contributions," said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU's Southern California affiliate, in a statement. Schools need to reward merit and accomplishment, he said, and "disavow class distinctions."

California is fertile territory for school lawsuits focused on money. A group of parents, students, and other advocates filed a lawsuit a few months ago that seeks to overhaul how the state pays for education, saying California does not provide adequate resources to schools.

UPDATE: Our expert on education-related legal issues, Mark Walsh, offers his perspective on the California case on his School Law blog.

MORE ON THE MONEY TRAIL: Yesterday Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the House education committee, put out a statement criticizing Schwarzenegger for supposedly deciding not to spend $1.2 billion in federal edujobs money designated for the state. "The Schwarzenegger administration is proving to be an unreliable partner in our efforts to reform California schools," Miller said.

But Matt Connelly, a spokesman for the governor's office, said that Schwarzenegger was simply reviewing the spending measures, and has since given his blessing to legislation from California lawmakers that will allow the $1.2 billion to flow. Schwarzenegger was out of the state on a trade mission to Asia, but Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado is planning on signing the legislation, possibly as soon as today, according to representatives of both California leaders' offices.

That seemed to satisfy Miller. He put out a statement today saying he was "very pleased" with the governor's decision.

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