California education officials in December settled a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against dozens of campuses, including John Burroughs High School, alleging that charging students for educational activities violated a constitutional mandate that public school districts provide free and equitable education to all students.
The new rules would apply to booster clubs, foundations, community organizations and other associations that provide support to a school.
If approved, the rules would be disastrous for districts already strapped for cash, local officials said.
“Our district and our schools will need to rely more heavily on voluntary donations to preserve the same level of educational opportunities that students have enjoyed in the past,” said Glendale Unified Deputy Supt. John Garcia. “There are a lot of practices now, not just in our district, but in districts all throughout the state that are going to have to be changed as a result of this legislation when and if it passes.”
While the bill is still pending, districts will be audited on student fees starting during the 2011-12 school year, Garcia said. He declined to estimate how many dollars in extracurricular funding come in the form of student fees, but did say that the changes will likely impact dozens of programs, including sports teams, instrumental ensembles and choirs.
“We have some food programs throughout the district,” Garcia offered as an example. “Often times, students are charged a lab fee or a shop fee, if you will, ahead of time so the teacher can purchase the consumable items. Students cannot be charged for food consumed.”
Burbank Unified, which was named in the original ACLU lawsuit, has already set in motion an effort to bring its funding of extracurricular activities in line with new policies.
Brendan Jennings, choir director at Burroughs High School, said his program dropped the use of official student fees about 18 months ago. Voluntary parent contributions and parent- and student-led fundraising now cover the costs, he said, which vary widely student to student, but can sometimes run as a high as $3,000.
His program has long had in place a financial safety net that ensures all students can participate, regardless of their socioeconomic status, Jennings said. The new rules simply add another administrative layer.
“It is not making my life easier, but it does push everybody to review their practices, and it also may affect larger change,” Jennings said.
Some school officials said the changes might provide an opportunity to rein in program expenses that had gotten out of control.
But others said the ACLU lawsuit would cause more long-term harm than good, and threatens programs that families are happy to pay for.
Glendale Unified has clung to its music and visual and performing arts programs despite years of budget cuts, said school board member Mary Boger.
“We are going to have to give them up because they are going to be become cost-prohibitive,” Boger said. “That to me is an absolutely chilling effect.”