California's new law, AB 1575, has educators on notice about the future of student activity fees

12/18/2013  |  Matt Poe

School districts around the country felt the pinch in terms of state funding when the Great Recession hit around 2007. To make up for some of the budget shortfall, and educational programming and school activities in place, schools began to charge pupil/student fees for participation.

“A ‘pupil fee’ includes a fee charged to a pupil as a condition for registering for school or classes, or as a condition for participation in a class or an extracurricular activity, regardless of whether the class or activity is elective or compulsory, or is for credit.”

These fees led to conflicts in regards to students whose families were unable or unwilling to “pay to play.” In California, lawsuits followed and legislation made its way through the state assembly. In October 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown approved and signed Assembly Bill 1575, the pupil fee law, which took effect Jan. 1, 2013.

While the AB 1575 is an attempt to keep schools in compliance with the California State Constitution, which has a free school guarantee, the language and application of the law has led to confusion about what is integral to students’ education and what are school-sponsored verses non-school-sponsored activities; confusion about activities for which fees can be charged; confusion about acceptable fund raising.

The impact of AB 1575 must be examined by every school district in the nation because the subject of student fees will, and already has, appeared in other states.

California’s Law

In general terms, AB 1575 was enacted to ensure that public school students would not be required to pay fees in order to take part in educational activities. In the law, an educational activity is defined as an activity offered by a school, school district, charter school, or county office of education, including, but not limited to, curricular and extracurricular activities (Calif. Edu. Code § 49010(a)).

A “pupil fee” includes a fee charged to a pupil as a condition for registering for school or classes, or as a condition for participation in a class or an extracurricular activity, regardless of whether the class or activity is elective or compulsory, or is for credit. A fee is also defined as a security deposit, or other payment, that a pupil is required to make to obtain a lock, locker, book, class apparatus, musical instrument, uniform, or other materials or equipment; and a purchase that a pupil is required to make to obtain materials, supplies, equipment, or uniforms associated with an educational activity.

The law states that all supplies, materials, and equipment needed to participate in educational activities shall be provided to pupils free of charge. A fee waiver policy shall not make a pupil fee permissible. School districts and schools shall not establish a two-tier educational system by requiring a minimal educational standard and also offering a second, higher educational standard that pupils may only obtain through payment of a fee or purchase of additional supplies that the school district or school does not provide.

A school district or school shall not offer course credit or privileges related to educational activities in exchange for money or donations of goods or services from a pupil or a pupil’s parents or guardians, and a school district or school shall not remove course credit or privileges related to educational activities, or otherwise discriminate against a pupil, because the pupil or the pupil’s parents or guardians did not or will not provide money or donations of goods or services to the school district or school.

The law also establishes uniform complaint procedures to allow anonymous complaints to move forward. If a school is found to be illegally charging fees, the law would force the school to reimburse all fees collected.

Difficulties and Impact

Even before the Great Recession, state funding for school districts was shrinking. Teachers and administrators have had to be creative in order to maintain financing for what most would believe are important school activities.

But school districts in California are encountering difficulties when it comes to defining what are curricular and extracurricular activities under the new law. Where is the line between school-sponsored and non-school sponsored activities? How does one define what is essential and integral to students’ education and what is not. The language in the law is not specific, so school districts have to determine whether or not charging student fees for activities is legal. Where do non-classroom activities such as travel, dances, theater, sports, etc. fall on the sponsored/non-sponsored, essential/nonessential scale?

Schools face legal proceedings if a student fee is charged for what is considered a school-sponsored, integral to education activity. Besides legal fees, schools will end up losing funding and will have to drop the activity — unless outside funding could be found.

Steps to Compliance

One of the most effective ways for schools to either comply with existing state law or to be prepared for coming laws is to create guidelines for school-sponsored and non-school-sponsored activities. In California, creation of these guidelines is part of AB 1575. Fortunately for school in states that have not yet addressed pupil fees, many school districts have already created effective guidelines, and these can be used and adapted by other school districts.

Since many school activities are financed by fund raisers, the question of how fund raisers are effected has come up. Under AB 1575, student fund raisers are allowed, but certain criteria must be met. For examples, schools cannot require students to be at or participate in a fund raiser in order to participate in an activity. Also, school officials must be very careful with fund raiser promotional materials to avoid terminology that would raise a red flag with state officials, such as “required” or “mandatory.”

Schools, foundations, and booster clubs can also solicit donations from students and their families, as long as the donations are clearly voluntary. If any requirement for participation in an activity or to pass a course is understood to be in place, it would be a violation of the law, once again, opening the school to legal proceedings and loss of funding for the activity or class.

As the implementation of California’s pupil fee law continues to unfold, more questions will be raised, and more clarifying legislation will be proposed to better define areas of the law in future legislative sessions. Also, a public/private cooperation of entities spearheaded by the Student and Youth Travel Association (SYTA), the lead organization representing the industry, including the California Coalition of Travel Companies, the California School Boards Association, California School Business Officers, and other groups, are working together to develop policies regarding fees that meet the needs of students, teachers, schools and school boards.

Pupil fee laws are coming across the nation. Schools must take the time to learn more about what’s going on in California to know more about what could be coming to their states. Schools also need to get ahead of the game and define programs that require fees.

Matt Poe owns IHN Editorial Consulting and works with the Student and Youth Travel Association (SYTA).
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