Is a free education really free? According to the American Civil Liberties Union in California, it had better be. Completely. In September 2010 the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the state of California on behalf “Jane Doe” and “Jason Roe”- fictional names for students who had encountered school imposed lab or academic fees in the pursuit of their high school education. Ms. Doe claimed emotional harm due to having to pay fees that were a hardship for her. The ACLU stepped in and filed a lawsuit claiming that school fees violate the state constitution for a free and equal education (Hartzell v Connell 1984 35 Cal. 3d 899 article IX section 5 prohibits schools from charging fees for educational activities that are an integral part of public education- including extracurricular activities).
California school budgets have been decimated over the last decade and classes and programs that require materials beyond mere textbooks resorted to charging students a “donation” fee to allow for the purchase of resources such as art materials, science lab supplies, food for cooking classes, etc. At some schools, students are also required to purchase PE clothing, Student Activities cards (which allow them access to school sports games, etc.), and pay for specialized testing for advanced placement courses.
The case was settled in December 2010 in favor of the students. The result is that districts have now implemented an extreme interpretation of the ruling by prohibiting teachers from requiring even a pencil and binder for class from students. We are no longer allowed to request monetary donations for materials or supplies, students cannot be charged to participate in extracurricular sports, clubs, or activities. The $300.00 that we are budgeted for our art classes by the district has to cover between 160 and 190 kids per day for the entire year. Less than $2.00 per student an entire school year.
While this entire issue is symptomatic of California’s dysfunctional finance and governance system for public education, I also believe that “free education” comes with a price. I can’t help but wonder if Jane Doe and Jason Roe, while lamenting about financial hardship, are also walking the halls of their high schools in three hundred dollar tennis shoes while chatting on their state of the art iPhone. Everything of value has a price and all of us would like to be able to pick and choose what we pay for. I hope Jane and Jason don’t plan on going to college (“Buy my own books???!! What?!”) or own a home (“You mean I have to pay property taxes to live here??”) or even get a job (“What are all these deductions in my paycheck??”) We tend to place a greater value on that which we have to sacrifice for.
When all the sacrificing is on the part of schools and educators students and their parents develop a sense of false entitlement that allows them to detach from any real responsibility to public education. No one can afford to sit back and syphon from any social system without having a personal responsibility to contribute in some capacity for the good of the whole.