ACLU California Affiliates Announce Major Settlement in School Fees Case

A settlement with the State of California that will establish a comprehensive monitoring and enforcement system to ensure school districts do not unlawfully charge fees to students for educational activities was announced by the three California ACLU affiliates today.

The settlement, which requires court approval, is contingent on enactment of legislation that would empower students and parents to use the existing Williams Uniform Complaint Process to identify, and receive reimbursement for illegal school fees and that would amend the annual independent audits of school districts to determine if schools collected illegal fees.

“This is a precedent-setting agreement, that puts an end once and for all to the ‘pay to learn’ system,” said David Blair-Loy, legal director of the San Diego ACLU. “Now all school districts in the state will have clarity about the importance of all students having an equal opportunity to achieve their dreams , no matter what their families’ financial circumstances are.”

“The ACLU thanks Governor Schwarzenegger, Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss and the state board of education for facilitating a quick resolution of this case,” said Kevin Keenan, executive director of the San Diego ACLU. “Building on the historic 2004 Williams v. California settlement, parents and students will now have an effective, efficient means to contest unconstitutional fees without having to turn to the courts.”

Under the legislation, if auditors find a district charged illegal fees, the district would be required to fully reimburse parents or suffer a financial penalty. Furthermore, parents would be able to challenge illegal fees immediately through the complaint process that provides for local resolution within 30 working days.

“Charging students illegal fees discriminates against lower-income children and violates their constitutional right to a free education,” said Assemblymember Ricardo Lara. “Families are unable to afford these fees and their children’s education suffers due to financial hardship.”

“The settlement reached today protects California students’ right to a truly free public education,” said Morrison & Foerster partner Dan Marmalefsky. “We are pleased that the State has acknowledged the unlawfulness of these fees and agreed to take steps to prevent future violations of this fundamental constitutional right.”

The lawsuit, which was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, followed an investigation by the ACLU that uncovered a widespread practice among school districts of forcing students to purchase textbooks, workbooks, and assigned novels in order to matriculate in academic courses. School districts also charged lab fees for participation in science classes. The suit alleged that this discriminating practice against lower-income children creates an unfair system where only the wealthy are able to afford an education that is constitutionally supposed to be free to all regardless of economic status.

The California affiliates involved in the case are the ACLU affiliates in San Diego & Imperial Counties, Southern California and Northern California. The law firm Morrison & Foerster is co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the suit.

The historic Williams settlement requires that all students have books and that their schools be safe and clean and it takes steps to make sure that students have qualified teachers. The settlement provided nearly $1 billion to accomplish these goals.


Read the Settlement Agreement

school fees settlement agreement.pdf