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ACLU and the State Reach Settlement in Lawsuit Over Student Fees

On December 9, 2010, the State of California and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) settled a lawsuit that alleged local school districts were illegally charging fees for educational activities and materials in violation of the State Constitutional right to a free and equal public education.

The lawsuit followed an investigation by the ACLU that uncovered a widespread practice among school districts of requiring students to purchase textbooks, workbooks, and assigned novels in order to enroll and progress in academic courses. It was also discovered that school districts charged lab fees for participation in science classes.

Under the settlement, the State has agreed to:

  1. Send guidance regarding student fees to all county and district superintendents and charter school administrators;
  2. Pursue legislation which will:

(a) expressly prohibit school districts from charging fees for “educational activities,” and detail the types of services that must be provided to all students free of charge;

(b) commencing with the 2010/2011 audit, mandate that audits of local education agencies specifically include a review of whether districts are illegally charging educational fees. If auditors find that the LEA charged illegal fees, the LEA would be required to fully reimburse parents or suffer a financial penalty; and

(c) permit students and parents to use the Williams Uniform Complaint Process to identify and receive reimbursement for illegal school fees. Furthermore, parents would be able to challenge illegal fees immediately through the complaint process that provides for local resolution within 30 working days.

The settlement is awaiting court approval. The Superintendent of Public Instruction is expected to issue a notice in the coming weeks to all public school districts concerning the settlement’s effects. The settlement calls for the legislation to be enacted by September 30, 2011.

While the settlement may appear straight-forward on its face, strict and appropriate compliance with these issues requires a detailed and fact-specific analysis of all student fees. As one example, while the settlement is aimed at “educational activities” fees, other types of fees related to “educational activities” (e.g. fees for transportation under Education Code section 39807.5) are still allowed. Do not hesitate to contact us with any questions.

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