LOS ANGELES -- A settlement reached between the state and the American Civil Liberties Union means California school districts will no longer charge parents extra fees for textbooks, art supplies and other basic educational items.
The deal, announced Thursday, also requires the state to send letters to every public school district and charter school operator in the state explaining the settlement and encouraging them to review their fees, said David Sapp, an attorney for the ACLU of Southern California.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued the state in September, saying the fees violated the state constitutional guarantee of free and equal public education.
"This is a historic settlement that puts an end once and for all to the pay-to-learn system," Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California, said in a statement. "This agreement means all students have an equal opportunity to achieve their dreams irrespective of their families' financial circumstances. "
The state agreed to seek new laws that would broaden annual state audits to include determining whether schools charged illegal fees. The laws also would permit parents to complain about illegal fees and to be reimbursed.
Those laws are expected to pass handily and the settlement should be implemented before the next school year begins in August, Sapp said.
State Controller John Chiang said his office will provide the audits needed to enforce the settlement, which still needs final approval from a judge in Los Angeles.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was named in the lawsuit, said Thursday that he was proud of the settlement.
"Every California student has the right to not only a quality public education, but a free public education. Our state has promised that to our students," he said in a statement.
School districts didn't formally oppose the lawsuit, Sapp said.
"You can't oppose what the constitution requires," he said.
There was no reliable information on how many California school districts were charging fees, but a random search of high school websites found at least 40, Sapp said.
For instance, students were required to pay $30 science lab fees, materials charges for art, shop and vocational classes, and to buy class necessities such as textbooks, workbooks and novels required for English classes, he said.
Two Orange County students mentioned in the lawsuit were unable to buy all their textbooks right away.
"There were assignments that they couldn't complete and they got lower grades," Sapp said.
Some students told ACLU attorneys that they were singled out and humiliated in front of the class by teachers who complained that they had not paid fees.
Schools also charged fees or required students to purchase outfits for programs such as cheerleading and chorus, despite a 1984 California Supreme Court ban on charging for extracurricular activities, Sapp said.
The ACLU found that the fees appeared to be most common in affluent school districts where many parents "won't think twice about paying $50 per workbook," Sapp said.
Districts have lost tens of millions of dollars in state funding and some may have seen the fees as a way to bolster their limp budgets, he said.
"We understand the difficulty and the challenge," Sapp said. "But that is not a justification for blatantly violating the law."