by Janet Stephenson
The California Department of Education recently denied a Uniform Complaint appeal regarding illegal pupil fees. The appeal addressed a practice of Conejo Valley Unified School District wherein it authorizes Conejo Schools Foundation as a fundraiser, which in turn fundraises through the charging of summer school classes, then turns over the fees, less expenses, to the school district through donations. As background, public schools are no longer allowed to charge for summer school classes after the passing of AB1575. AB1575 included charging for summer school in a list of forbidden fundraising practices by schools, as it went against the California Constitution and the California free public school guarantee.
CVUSD and a few other California districts have sought to get around the requirements of AB1575 by using fundraising organizations that exclusively raise funds for their district. The arrangement goes like this… The school district stops offering summer school to first time students. Then, the fundraising organization enters into an agreement with the district to run their own summer school to raise funds for the district. The district provides facilities, materials, and even some staff to support the fundraiser at a nominal fee, the fundraiser charges expensive fees or tuition for students to attend, and the fundraising organization donates back to the school all fees raised, less their expenses, which includes the nominal fee they initially paid. The end result is that the school receives as much money as they would have received if they charged for summer school themselves. In this recent ruling that denied the Uniform Complaint condemning the practice, the Department of Education has effectively given a green flag to all California districts to go ahead and use the loophole around AB1575, effectively nullifying the free school guarantee in terms of summer school.
This decision will negatively affect children in lower income and middle income households by creating an uneven academic playing field. If students can afford the steep summer school tuition, then they can get ahead and take more advanced classes in high school. If students can’t afford the steep summer school tuition, then they are just out of luck. This is particularly hard on STEM students who are trying to complete advanced math and science classes by their senior year to give them a boost going into college.
And it’s not just about an uneven academic field for getting ahead. Studies have shown that summer school sessions keep students engaged, and students from economically disadvantaged homes are more likely to stay in school and graduate. Theories for this success with students generally conclude that the summer break is too long and the brain drain hits students hardest who don’t have the financial ability to pay for engaging summer activities and trips. For students who have difficult home lives, the school provides a stable base where they can succeed on their own terms. Having access to a place where they can learn, grow, and achieve throughout most of the year benefits their academics and benefits the community.
Conejo Schools Foundation claims that it has scholarships available, but the terms of the scholarships are not known. A “B” student might be exceptional in math, but their overall GPA might not qualify them for a scholarship, and not all parents are willing to lay out their financial trials to prove they have “enough” hardship to qualify. The point is that parents and students shouldn’t have to beg to have an equal playing field within their own schools. Conejo Schools Foundation runs summer school in the very schools that students who are denied participation attend during the regular school year, and it, whether intentional or not, creates a two-tier system for success.
Another point that was made in defense of the district’s use of CSF is that students can go outside of the district to obtain free summer school courses. However, to my knowledge, the district has made no effort to inform students of the locations where equivalent free summer school courses can be found. The least that the district can do, if they choose to continue this practice of using CSF, is to provide information of where students can find free summer school courses. True, the students will have to drive past their own schools, where summer school is available only to the wealthy, and out of the district, but at least CVUSD will have made a small effort on their behalf. For the record, Simi Valley Unified School District is one district that does not charge for summer school, but students will need to get approval from SVUSD and will also need to confirm with their CVUSD school counselors that classes taken there will be considered equivalent to CVUSD courses.
The Department of Education has oversight over the Local Educational Agencies, but it does not determine law, and the Department of Education has erred before, as in the ACLU lawsuit which led to AB1575. In their decision to deny the appeal in the Uniform Complaint, the Department did not address, and chose to ignore, the aspect of the Uniform Complaint that referred to Education Code 51521 and the argument that a public school district can not authorize a fundraising organization to do what the district, itself, can not do.
In the end, the Department of Education is not a judicial branch, and its opinion that the practice complies with the law is not the final word on legality. For that, this might have to be resolved through a lawsuit. The ACLU brought the initial lawsuit that led to AB1575, and it may take a similar lawsuit to remove this current loophole. At the time of the ACLU lawsuit, the Department of Education was routinely denying complaints of illegal pupil fees when the schools, themselves, were charging for summer school. The California Department of Education was wrong then, and I believe they are wrong now.
Until this practice is corrected by court decision or legislative action, AB1575 has effectively been made void when it comes to its direction on summer school, and districts will continue to profit from the charging of summer school classes…they just need to use a nonprofit that they authorize to do it for them.
Editor’s Note: This is an opinion article.
Janet Stephenson is a resident of Thousand Oaks
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal