By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Ask any parent with a child in a California public school and they likely will say that a free education isn’t really free.
There are transportation fees, field trip costs, uniform deposits, classroom supply lists and increasingly, according to the ACLU, fees for textbooks and enrollment in particular classes.
The existence of those fees in public schools prompted a lawsuit in September, alleging “pay to learn” practices are on the rise throughout California.
While the suit is moving forward, ACLU officials said it will be dropped if Assembly Bill 165, which would prevent schools charging for elements of a core education, becomes law.
The bill, which cleared the Assembly on June 2, passed the Senate subcommittee on education Wednesday on a 6-1 vote.
“We saw such a surge of complaints,” said Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy for ACLU of California.
“It was not the change in quantity, but the change in subject of the calls. Previously we might have received complaints of schools charging for extracurriculars. We started receiving more and more concerns about core academic” classes, Allen said.
But what constitutes core academic services versus extracurricular has raised some concern in Sonoma County that field trips, band competitions and other higher-cost events might fall by the wayside if schools no longer are allowed to ask students to pay.
“I’m inclined to think that those trips are going to be few and far between if fundraising is inadequate for every kid to go,” said Gerry Blue of Rohnert Park. Her son was in the Analy High School band program for four years before graduating in 2009.
At Analy, band students are asked to pay about $100 to participate in the class but it’s not required and students aren’t penalized if they don’t pay, Blue said.
“The music program gets so little,” he said.
“In principle, I agree with the bill, but my concern is that it’s going too far,” he said. “The California Constitution requires that a free education be offered to all California students, so the definition of what exactly is a free education is where I’m a little bit (unsure). It’s kind of a gray area.”
AB 165 defines the key educational programs as “activity that constitutes an integral fundamental part of elementary and secondary education or that amounts to a necessary element of a school activity, including, but not limited to, curricular and extracurricular activity.”
It further prohibits fees “charged to a pupil as a condition for registering for school or classes, or as a condition for participation in a class or an extracurricular activity, regardless of whether the class or activity is elective or compulsory, or is for credit.”
Sonoma County educators said fees for transportation, art materials, lab costs and supplies in vocational courses have been in place for years, but those will have to be re-evaluated if AB 165 becomes law.
“We used to have lab fees and some other things, so you will see districts modifying that,” said Steve Herrington, superintendent of Sonoma County schools. “I have never been a fan of charging kids fees. They should be entitled to a free education.”
But Herrington also questioned how AB 165 would be interpreted if it is signed into law.
“What is basic education? And what is extra?” he said.
Both Herrington and Allen acknowledged that some fees straddle the line between mandatory and voluntary, potentially putting students and their families in an uncomfortable position.
“Sometimes it’s very clear, very obvious,” Allen said. “Look, it says, ‘You must pay $85 to take physics,’ that’s a required fee and clearly violates the law.”
But what if a student can’t afford or doesn’t have access to the 10 novels on an Advanced Placement English teacher’s recommended summer reading list?
“If that is required, ‘You have to read these,’ then the school has to provide some access to where you can get copies of those 10 books,” Allen said.
Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, said his bill is meant to address the subtle economic peer pressure that can exclude some students from activities.
“As a former band drum major, I don’t want to do anything to eliminate our school programs and music programs and extracurricular activities,” he said. “We are not excluding fundraising or donations for different programs. We are simply saying it cannot be a condition for participation.”
“I’m not saying that school districts were doing this with any malice, but this was going on,” he said.
Blue said that in the current economic climate, if parents are precluded from donating to their own student’s activities but rather directed to chip in for the entire group, some may pull back their support.
“If that is the way it has to be, I’m not sure those trips will happen,” he said.
In Petaluma, district officials last year conducted their own audit of where fees were being charged and for what.
“Sports is a good example,” said interim Superintendent Steve Bolman. “We ask for donations. We get about half the people donating, half the people don’t. Everyone plays.”
But that gap in funding invariably puts pressure on booster clubs to fill in the gap, he said. And if boosters can’t provide the funds, the payments don’t get made.
“The only things we pay for in sports is the coach’s salary and salary-related benefits,” Bolman said.
Music and theater booster groups are under the same pressure to support programs.
In Geyserville, fees have been largely abandoned because so many students there are considered economically disadvantaged that they are exempted from fees anyway, said Superintendent Joe Carnation.
“It’s always been my contention … that we cannot charge for transportation and cannot charge a kid a fee,” he said.
Under financial pressure, that district has cut all funding for athletics, turning to boosters to fund middle and high school volleyball, track, soccer, basketball and softball for the coming school year. Last year, boosters picked up 80 percent of the tab.
But Carnation acknowledged the reality of school budgets sometimes differs from the letter of the law.
“I’ve paid the fees like other parents,” Carnation said.
Lara does not expect AB 165 to dismantle programs that now rely on fees and fundraising to stay afloat, but said the fundraising portion will have to step up even more to cover all students who want to participate.
“I know our schools are strapped and I know that we in Sacramento are not doing anything to solve it and keep burdening them with more cuts,” Lara said.
He said he considers sports, band, theater and other so-called extracurricular activities part of a student’s core education — not an “extra” subject to fees.
“They play a vital role, so I don’t think we can separate one or the other,” he said.
Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.