Pass / Fail | So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

7 things California public schools can't charge you for — and a few they can

Redondo High School principal Nicole Wesley says many school activities require suggested donations from parents to stay afloat.
Redondo High School principal Nicole Wesley says many school activities require suggested donations from parents to stay afloat.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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A year after California passed a law meant to curb public schools from illegally charging students fees to take part in educational activities, state officials say they've received about 150 appeals from parents claiming their schools were violating it.

There's no way to know how many gave up after complaining to schools directly - the state doesn't collect those numbers. And each district has their own forms and process which parents must follow before getting the state involved.

The law doesn't stop schools from asking parents for donations — or even set a suggested amount. But students can't be left out for not paying.

So what can't schools charge for?

  1. Science lab equipment or supplies
  2. PE uniforms required to take the class
  3. Participating in sports teams
  4. Attending graduation ceremonies
  5. Books used in class
  6. Photography or art class supplies
  7. Attending summer school.

There are some things public schools can charge for: books a child destroys or a materials fee in a class where they get to keep what they make, like wood shop. And schools can sell tickets for a school dance and charge transportation fees to get kids to events.

The law, which started as Assembly Bill 1575  was passed to settle a lawsuit with the ACLU and creates a process for parents to file complaints. California education officials also have to issue regular advisories to school districts, charter schools, and county offices of education about the laws on student fees.

“I think districts themselves have become more aware and some of the really egregious and blatant fees - some of which may well have been because people didn’t know the rules, some of which may have been hoping they could get away with it,” said David Sapp, a lawyer with the ACLU.

Suggested donations

Manhattan Beach parent and teacher Alan Zeoli said he and his wife pay about $600 a year for extra-curricular activities for their two sons. His sons participate in choir and play instruments and the suggested donations add up.

“For every program there is a fair share request, so for marching band, for performance ensembles, for choir, for drama when they’re doing the plays, for model UN, all of those things need money and so that money has to come from somewhere,” he said. “It’s cheaper for the parents because it costs a lot more to go to a private school than to donate a few hundred bucks or a thousand bucks a year."

He said the can't afford to pay the entire suggested donation.

When parents can't donate the cash, kids and schools do what they've always done: they put on fundraisers, washing cars, selling candy or wrapping paper.

“And this is where I argue that public education is not free,” said Redondo High School principal Nicole Wesley. “We’re not given the amount of funding needed to truly cover all aspects of a high school experience for our students."

At her school parents are asked to donate $750 to pay for a cheerleading uniform, and about $500 per student playing varsity football.

“I’ve filed upwards of 200 uniform complaints on illegal school fees,” said education activist Sally Smith of San Diego, likely the most prolific complaint filer in the state.

Limits on how schools ask for money, she said, have created competitive fundraising at many campuses. At Redondo High, for example, the baseball team sold a lot of Christmas trees and holiday wreaths last year to pay for uniforms and travel, while a raffle for a new BMW donated by a parent had raised $25,000.

But not every school has a parent who can afford to give away a luxury car to raise money.

“I don’t want the burden of the cost of education to be on the shoulders of children, it just doesn’t belong there,” said activist Sally Smith.

Smith calculates she's helped 200 parents file complaints with their schools for illegal fees - including 17 for charging for caps and gowns.

She said at first state education officials said that fee was ok - then changed their minds after shc complained.

Want to complain about your school charging illegal student fees? Your school district should have materials for you. Here's L.A. Unified's.