School fees have long been rampant and families had little way to challenge them. Even after San Diego Unified pledged to stamp out illegal fees, some schools persisted in charging them.

Now parents and kids could have a way to fight back — and school districts could take a financial hit if they keep hitting up parents. Under a legal settlement, families could soon get a new way to protest when schools stick them with fees for textbooks, workbooks or the cheerleading team.

The new rules could emerge from a legal settlement after the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state in September over school fees. Civil rights groups argued illegal charges were so common that California hadn’t protected the right to a free public education.

To combat the problem, California agreed to propose a new law that would allow parents and students to contest fees and get paid back promptly. It would use the same process that families now use to complain about inadequate textbooks or shabby buildings. Districts would have to fix problems within 30 working days. Families could also appeal to the state superintendent.

“The problem has been enforcement” when it comes to school fees, said David Blair-Loy, legal director for the San Diego chapter of the ACLU. “It creates what we hope will be a self-regulating, self-sustaining and self-enforcing mechanism.”

Sally Smith, a parent activist who led the charge against school fees, has complained that while San Diego Unified says it has tackled the problem, teachers have continued to require fees and supplies. For instance, Smith complained that in one ceramics class, kids have to lump their clay back into a ball and return it if they cannot pay for it, while others get to learn to fire and glaze.

“Without a complaint mechanism outside of the school districts,” Smith wrote in an email before the settlement was announced, “these practices will continue.”

The new rules would also spell out the law more clearly for schools, saying that all supplies, materials and equipment for school and extracurricular activities must be provided to children for free. Letting poorer families opt out of school fees doesn’t make fees allowable, the law adds.

And schools would also have to show their financial auditors that they don’t charge fees. Any parents who are charged fees must be reimbursed — with interest — before an audit is clean.

If a school district violates the rules for two years in a row, California will withhold 1 percent of their next payment for administrative costs from the state until schools reimburse all parents with interest. Blair-Loy estimated that would be “in six figures” for a district like San Diego Unified.

The case still may not be over. To finally settle the ACLU lawsuit, California legislators have to pass a law that includes the proposed changes. If it does not, the case will not be settled.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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