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What Constitutes a Free Education?

With the cost of educating students in public schools rising and state funding declining, it was inevitable that school districts would be forced to resort to new methods of narrowing the gap. In a front-page story, The Wall Street Journal detailed the way different states have added lab fees, book fees and even fees for extracurricular activities ("Public Schools Charge Kids for Basics, Frills," May 25).

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union last year filed suit in California arguing that the practice violates Article IX of the state Constitution, which guarantees a free education to students. The ACLU is on solid ground because in 1984 the California Supreme Court in Hartzell v. Connell ruled that "public education is a right enjoyed by all - not a commodity for sale." It is not contingent upon the financial health of local school districts.

The court went on to reject the claim that waivers for low-income students were a mitigating factor. A free education must be free for all - whether rich or poor. Even extracurricular activities are not immune from the ruling because they constitute an "integral component" of education. Despite the decision, some school districts continued to impose fees in one form or another. Yet fees for labs and books hardly qualify as frills. They are essential parts of a quality education.

Recognizing this, the Assembly Appropriations Committee in Sacramento is scheduled to consider a bill to establish an enforcement mechanism. Failure to do so will allow school districts to persist in violating both the letter and spirit of Article IX with impunity.

It's always risky to extrapolate what happens in one state to another, but the principle of a free education is embedded in state Constitutions across the country. As a result, there's hope that similar action will follow everywhere. Too much is on the line.

Texas is taking a more aggressive approach to the problem of reduced state aid to school districts. Under a proposal called the Taxpayers' Savings Grant, parents would be given up to $5,143 or the cost of private school tuition (whichever is less) for every child who moved from a public school to a private school. Children who have been in public school for at least one year and those who are entering kindergarten or first grade would be eligible.

This plan is a way to mollify critics who argue that pouring more money into schools will not improve outcomes. What they fail to mention is that overall education spending rose at a slower rate in 2009 than at any other time in more than a decade, according to census figures released on May 25. Districts spent an average of $10,499 per student on elementary and secondary education in the 2009 fiscal year, an increase of 2.3 percent from 2008. This compares with a rise in spending of 6.1 percent and 5.8 percent in the two prior years.

I anticipate further efforts along the same line in other states in order to avoid increasing taxes or cutting programs. The recession has proved to be a blessing for those who want to privatize all schools.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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