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Beyond `pay for play’: Some schools charge for P.E. uniforms, electives

A mother in San Lorenzo who saw the `pay to play‘ blog post wrote to tell me that her daughter’s new middle school was charging a $20 fee for electives.

Another mom sent me a letter from an Oakland middle school that listed prices for P.E. uniforms and clothing that matched the school’s dress code.

Jory Steele, managing attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, said the organization has received numerous complaints about schools that may be violating the 1984 Supreme Court ruling that public schools — and related activities and curriculum — must be free for all students.

“We are looking into it,” she said.

As schools are cutting back, I wonder if more are looking to families for help. Fundraising isn’t prohibited in the law, Steele said, but fees are a different story.

What does your child’s school require families to pay? Have you challenged this practice at your school or school district? What response did you receive?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • 27 year teacher

    Remember, it’s only illegal if the expenditure is required. If the school requires you to buy their gym clothes, that is illegal; if they require students to wear certain clothing in gym class, that is appropriate. Many schools charge a materials fee in electives like shop to cover their costs. You can choose not to pay, but then whatever shop projects you make stay the property of the school. If you pay, you get to keep what you make. If schools are supposed to be completely free, then why am I seeing so many “back to school” ads? Why do schools publish lists of materials and place them at Target and Staples?

  • Nextset

    Rabid enforcement of this judicially created “right” is one more thing that will push the states to end compulsory education earlier, perhaps at 15 or 16. You can see how the school districts are now expected to run wardrobes for the student populations so that the Baby Mommas and Baby Daddies aren’t even expected to provide gym shorts – or anything else for their children.

    When the collapse comes – and it can happen anytime now – the schools will simply shut down in bankruptcy and this will happen before the cities discontinue basic services. Our school districts are not funded to provide every pencil, food item and scrap of clothing to the school kids. Families were to do this and there was no legislation to the contrary. As they have done across US life the Courts have decided to become a legislature and create spending mandates out of thin air without funding them, regardless of the consequences.

  • berkeleymom

    Gary Kreep, though his organization, the United States Justice Foundation, has been very active in bringing successful lawsuits against school districts who venture into pay -or-play.

    Usually the cases never make it to court as districts settle. The law is very clear.

  • Katy Murphy

    In the case I mentioned, the PE uniforms for sale had the school’s name on them, so it would seem to fall in the “required” category. Even if it isn’t required, I’d imagine most parents would assume that it was.

  • aly

    i’d be careful with the line of thought that because the clothes bear the school’s name they are likely required or presented that way. where i work, parents are told in no uncertain terms that our PE clothes are optional but there are certain colors of shorts and tee shirts that are required. most parents opt in because they don’t want their child to look different or stand out, and because honestly, our PE clothes are a pretty darn good deal.

    the southern california middle and high schools i attended were both in fairly well-to-do areas (different districts as we moved between middle and high school), and both required me to purchase PE clothes. my high school made student athletes pay a bus fee for transportation to away games. if you couldn’t afford it you had to show evidence of financial hardship, something akin to being on free or reduced lunch, and you would not have to pay. boosters raised money for our uniforms (which required a deposit, returned once the uniform was returned to the school) and transportation scholarships. i can only imagine those schools were able to use the language of “required” because the parents had the funds and wouldn’t bother looking into whether or not such requirements were legal.

    while i can appreciate the spirit behind the law, it is no secret that money is tight for schools. if families that can afford the fees pay them in order to preserve programs and make scholarships available for students who would be otherwise unable to play, that seems the perfect balance and to meet the intent of the law- no one is left out for inability to pay. it is especially appealing when your options are pay or the programs don’t exist; makes the decision pretty easy.

  • Hot R

    What you have to understand is that the idea of the public schools providing equal opportunity for a free and public education is the underlying principle for the two lawsuits brought against the State of California, as they are asking a judge to ultimately agree that the current system is underfunded and thus a violation of this principle.

    The fees for transportation, art, science lab, PE clothes, field trips, AP tests, and others are just symptoms that the system is in dire need of an influx of funds, and better management of the funds the school district does get.

    When I worked in Oakland, the Disrict would regularly run out of supplies in April (no pencils, paper, copy supplies, cleaning fluid, etc.). At least that is what we were told. That meant teachers reached into their own pockets to make these thihgs available for students – 98% of them couldn’t afford it on their own. Now is that an equitable system? At first I was shocked that the system was so poorly run – but everyone just seemed to shrug their shoulders and accept it. As always it is the teacher who has to carry the burden of the underfunded and mismanaged system.

    Nextset – we want “rabid enforcement” of this right because it is fundamental to our democratic system.

  • 27 year teacher

    Hot R: I certainly agree with you in principle. But I think you understand how the system is run. Programs are always cut before adequate funding is given. Now is the worst I have ever seen it.
    Once upon a time, one of the boys bathrooms at my school broke and there was no money to fix it. The district was told to “make the number of male and female bathrooms equitable”. They simply padlocked the girls bathroom, sending them to on campus bathrooms outside the building. (PS: the toilet fixtures remained in the padlocked girls bathroom for 10 years until the room was turned into storage).
    Simple fact is: if the ACLU wins rigid enforcement of this rule, the schools will simply end the offending programs, not increase funding.

  • Nextset

    Hot R: There is no fundamental right of public education. Not a word about that in the Federal Constitution, Not sure which states may or may not have it in their constitution.

    It’s nice to have public education but it is constitutionally optional. The state legislature can terminate public school programs whenever they please.

    And if and when your state goes bankrupt/insolvent the public schools are to close, most likely starting with the Universities and Colleges. Understand that one thing is clear in the Federal Constitution, the states may not print money.

    And CA is well on the way to becoming a hollow state.

    It’s nice when there is everything for everyone, but the party is about to be over. The only question is where lines are to be drawn and when.

    Like the Obamacare nonsense, once you “entitle” everybody for everything, you have to ration it and the death panels are appointed. That’s now economics work. The more these runaway courts create “rights” the more water must be added to the soup until our “schools” are schools in name only.

    It’s going to be a very interesting 12-60 months. When a system is actually going down, the speed of the decline accelerates. Watch for the acceleration.

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