ACRU Senior Fellow Robert Knight wrote this article on September 14, 2010.
California’s budget deficit has reached an estimated $26.3 billion. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democrat-dominated legislature are scrambling to avoid a total fiscal meltdown in the nation’s most populous state.
Over the past two years, the state has cut $17 billion in aid to public schools, prompting nearly 400 districts to slash their budgets, according to a state survey released in June. About a third have laid off teachers, and nearly two-thirds have reduced maintenance. Nearly half have cut out some music and arts programs.
Drowning in red ink like the rest of California’s public institutions, at least 30 school districts have introduced fees for uniforms, classes and some supplies in an effort to stay afloat.
Naturally, the American Civil Liberties Union took one look at these modest steps back toward fiscal sanity and cried “foul!”
On Friday, Sept. 10, the ACLU filed a lawsuit demanding suspension of the fees in districts that include the poverty-stricken hamlets of Beverly Hills, Burbank and Long Beach.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest in the state with about 700,000 students, was spared a mention in the suit. Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines “recently canceled a plan to request a voluntary $24 fee from students participating on sports teams,” according to the Los Angeles Times. The ACLU sued the L.A. District in another lawsuit in February, saying it could not lay off teachers.
“Free public schools are the linchpin of our democracy,” said ACLU of Southern California Chief Counsel Mark Rosenbaum at a press conference. “What we have are ‘pay-to-learn’ schools.”
Let’s be honest. A few fees are not “pay to learn.” The real “pay-to-learn” education is done by home-schoolers and private schools, whose pupils’ parents pay taxes to support government schools while receiving no aid at all for providing a superior education and saving the state tax dollars. In fact, Section 8 of the California Constitution explicitly bars any such aid.
You’d think the taxpaying parents who shoulder a double burden would at least rate a “thank you” note from state officials for saving them so much money and ensuring that at least some California kids can distinguish between Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec snake god, and, say, Thomas Jefferson. Quetzalcoatl, by the way, is commemorated in San Jose as an 8-foot-tall coiled snake statue in a public park. “According to the Aztecs, he is supposed to have organized the original cosmos,” the AOL Travel Guide reports. Wouldn’t that make it a taxpayer-supported religious icon? Where’s the ACLU when you really need them to huff and puff about the mythical “separation of church and state?”
The ACLU school lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleges that charging fees is “illegal” under California’s Constitution, which guarantees all students a “free” public education.
Here’s the relevant California constitutional language:
SEC. 5. The Legislature shall provide for a system of common
schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each
district at least six months in every year, after the first year in
which a school has been established.
There is no language anywhere in the document that bars charging fees, except for textbooks (Sec. 7.5). The ACLU points to a 1984 state Supreme Court decision in Hartzell v. Connell that barred charging fees for extracurricular school activities. That ruling came under the notoriously leftwing Chief Justice Rose Bird, who, along with two other liberal justices was removed from office by voters in the next judicial election in 1986 (the key issue was Bird’s vote to overturn verdicts or sentences in 52 straight death penalty cases).
Just for perspective, note that the California Constitution, via the passage of Proposition 8, guarantees that marriage is defined as the union of one man and one woman. But the ACLU doesn’t regard that part of the Constitution as binding. On Nov. 5, 2008, the day after more than 7 million of California’s voters put the marriage definition into the Constitution, the ACLU sued to overturn it.
In its coverage of the school fees lawsuit, the San Diego Union-Tribune notes that no districts in San Diego County are listed in the ACLU’s complaint, and helpfully provides its readers with a snitch-line phone number:
“Do you know of a fee that’s still being charged? Tell The Watchdog at 619-293-2275.”
Perhaps they should just call the ACLU directly and cut out the helpful, objective journalist middleman.