Judge Rules that State Must Begin to Dismantle Its ‘Pay to Learn’ System

(Los Angeles)-The California ACLU affiliates today won a major victory in Los Angeles Superior Court.  Judge Carl West denied motions by the State and the State Board of Education, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and California Department of Education to dismiss Doe v. State of California, which challenges the state’s failure to prevent school districts from charging fees that are prohibited by the California Constitution.

In their argument, the State of California and Superintendent Torlakson claimed that neither had any responsibility to ensure districts comply with constitutional requirements that public schools should be free to all children.  In September 2010, the California ACLU affiliates sued the State of California and then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for allowing school districts throughout the state to charge fees for books and other essential educational supplies. This practice violates the California Constitution which, since 1879, has guaranteed children a free education.

“This landmark decision marks the first time that any California court has held that the State is ultimately responsible for ensuring that no child be charged fees for educational materials in our K-12 system,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California. ”Today’s ruling confirms that the state must take steps to dismantle the ‘Pay to Learn’ system throughout California. It has resulted in a statewide dual school system that would make Horace Mann shudder.  In California today, there exists a sham free public school system that places the burden of the state’s economic crisis in the backpacks of its most vulnerable children.  Today’s decision correctly holds that the ultimate responsibility for the unconstitutional and indefensible system rests with the highest ranking education officials.”

The lawsuit resulted from an investigation by the ACLU affiliates in San Diego & Imperial Counties, Southern California, and Northern California that uncovered a widespread practice among school districts of forcing students to purchase textbooks, workbooks, and assigned novels for core academic courses. School districts also charged students to take Advanced Placement examinations, even though completing these examinations is a course requirement and affects students’ grades. The suit contends that this discriminating practice against lower-income children will result in an unfair system where only the wealthy will be able to afford an education that is constitutionally supposed to be free to all regardless of economic status.

Illegal school fees levied against students who strive to be successful in school cause a great academic disadvantage. The suit alleges that some students who could not afford to pay the illegal fees were overtly humiliated by teachers and school officials.

The ACLU of California includes the ACLU affiliates in San Diego & Imperial Counties, Southern California, and Northern California. The law firm Morrison & Foerster is co-counsel on the lawsuit.