BY COREY G. JOHNSON California Watch
Proposed legislation aimed at ending illegal fees in public schools will no longer require superintendents to audit their schools to ensure compliance.
Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy for the ACLU's Southern California office, said Assembly members tweaked the bill -- AB 1575 -- to overcome concerns raised by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Brown vetoed a similar effort to stamp out illegal school fees in 2010, saying requiring audits of all schools "goes too far."
Allen said Assembly members were concerned that the audits would be a financial burden to schools. The ACLU and the bill's sponsor, Ricardo Lara, D-South Gate, support the changes, Allen said.
Since 2010, the civil rights group has spearheaded the effort to eliminate illegal fees after finding widespread instances of schools requiring payment for classes and extracurricular activities. California's constitution requires public education to be free.
"One estimate determined it may cost up to $1 million for audits," Allen said. "That's a hard sell at a time when there isn't much money for schools."
The mandate was stripped from the bill last month, days before the Assembly voted to pass it. The Senate Education Committee will discuss and possibly vote on the bill in Sacramento this week.
Instead of requiring audits, the bill will task the California Department of Education with developing a guide that specifies legal and illegal school charges. The education department would publish the fee guide on its website and provide copies to schools during the 2013-14 school year.
In addition, parents would receive annual notices about the types of fees that are illegal and instructions on how to challenge improper charges using the school's complaint process. The bill stipulates that districts must resolve complaints within 30 days. If necessary, parents can appeal the local decision all the way to the State Board of Education.
Allen believes the complaint process and state guidance will raise awareness and provide strong incentive for school districts to comply with the law. The ACLU sued the state of California, state Superintendent for Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the state Board of Education last year, accusing them of failing to enforce the constitutional guarantee to free public education. The case is being heard in Los Angeles Superior Court.
"With notice and guidance, I believe school administrators will take the necessary steps to ensure students' rights are honored and protected," Allen said. "I would hope no more incentive is needed, but if it is, I think the prospect of receiving complaints that have to be reported publicly to the governing board and local county superintendent, and can be appealed to the state department of education, would provide additional motivation to ensure all policies and practices are consistent with the free school guarantee."
Lara previously introduced a bill, AB 165, that sought to stop the illegal fees by requiring annual school audits and a process to resolve fee complaints. The measure was overwhelmingly supported by the state Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Brown after education groups, including the Association of California School Administrators, rallied against the bill over the audit mandate.
But opposition has softened with the elimination of the audits in the new bill. The Association of California School Administrators, the California Association of School Business Officials, the California Federation of Teachers and others in education are now supporters. Allen points to that as proof that the latest legislative effort is picking up steam.
"In an ideal world, there could be more mechanisms up front," Allen said. "I have to be optimistic, seeing the number of supporters grow. I think most agree that this is an issue that needs to be addressed."
Lara did not respond to a request for comment.
The legislative tweaks come as the ACLU and the state remain locked in a dispute over how the illegal fees lawsuit should proceed.
The ACLU has filed thousands of pages of document summaries, school curriculum manuals, screenshots of fee charges, a grand jury report and news stories featuring school district officials discussing fees. But state education board and education department lawyers said the state is unaware of any illegal fees and called the ACLU evidence "hearsay."
David Sapp of the ACLU said the state is also implementing a strategy that, if agreed to by the court, would essentially dismiss the lawsuit if the plaintiffs can't produce evidence of statewide violations.
"The position the defense is taking is pretty amazing," Sapp said. "Anyone with half a brain would know that we aren't making this up."
Tina Jung, spokeswoman for the state education department, said her office is declining to comment until the case was resolved.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kenneth Freeman ordered the two sides to continue talking and notify him by July 9 of any agreement on how the allegations will be researched and argued. The ACLU and the state are slated to talk again by phone this week.