Families File Lawsuit Against State of California for “Pay-To-Learn” Summer Schools that Violate Right to Free Public Education
Vanaman German LLP and Public Counsel filed a lawsuit yesterday against the State of California, the State Board of Education, the State Department of Education, and State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond, for their collective failure to end “pay-to-learn” summer school programs that violate the state constitutional right to a free public education by charging students tuition. The lawsuit alleges that California’s willful ignorance and deliberate inaction toward these illegal fee-based programs disproportionately harms students of color and low-income families, and widens an already two-tier system of inequitable education.
“The right to a free public education is a bedrock principle of the California Constitution,” said Mark Rosenbaum, directing attorney of Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law project. “Yet, public school districts throughout the state blatantly flaunt this constitutional right by offering fee-based summer school programs that can cost hundreds of dollars per course. Not only are these programs illegal, but they also worsen racial and economic inequities by preferencing wealthy families over those struggling financially. This case is about the State stepping up to affirmatively identify and end such practices and provide compensatory education to children who should not be disadvantaged in comparison to their more affluent peers.”
The lawsuit alleges that school districts have developed a scheme to circumvent state law by outsourcing summer school activities to external entities – often referred to as education foundations – to charge students tuition. However, these education foundations use public school facilities, employ public school teachers, teach school curricula, expunge poor grades, and award course and graduation credits. Additionally, when their revenue exceeds school expenses, the foundations funnel money from students’ families back to the public school district.
“For too long, the State of California has intentionally ignored this glaring violation of students’ right to a free public education,” said David W. German, partner with Vanaman German LLP. “In doing so, the State has failed to perform its constitutional duty of ensuring basic educational equality for all students. The State’s lack of leadership on this issue is unconscionable and contributes to a public school system where affluent students gain competitive advantages over their less well-off peers, and low-income families are denied the same educational opportunities.”
The lawsuit identifies at least 17 school districts throughout the state, collectively serving more than 200,000 students, that offer fee-based summer schools. The school district websites offer and promote the programs to students and their families. The programs are advertised as giving students opportunities to gain a leg up to hone their skills with school faculty, address academic deficiencies, facilitate taking higher-level courses, and boost chances for access to higher education.
“Knowing that my mom had to pay for my summer History course at my high school gave me anxiety,” said Grace Davis, an 18-year-old student who attended a school that required fees for summer school. “The added pressure made it harder to focus.”
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit report agonizing choices over whether to pay for summer school classes at the expense of other enrichment activities. The complaint describes how one family recently had no choice but to make the painful decision not to send their child to summer school for the first time because of budgeting concerns. The student has many friends who have never been able to participate in summer school, because their families could not afford to pay the fees, which can exceed $500 per course. This cost has hindered their academic performance and has evoked feelings of shame and resentment.
The complaint describes how a volunteer working with plaintiffs’ counsel spent a few hours surfing school district’s websites and identified 17 California school districts that operate a pay-to-learn summer school scheme. The identified districts include Beverly Hills Unified, Glendale Unified, Irvine Unified, La Canada Flintridge Unified, Manhattan Beach Unified, South Pasadena Unified, plus others.
Plaintiffs are represented by Public Counsel and Vanaman German LLP. The lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Public Counsel: Founded in 1970, Public Counsel is the nation’s largest provider of pro bono legal services, utilizing an innovative legal model to promote justice, hope, and opportunity in lower-income and communities of color in Los Angeles and across the nation. Through groundbreaking civil rights litigation, community building, advocacy, and policy change, as well as wide-ranging direct legal services that annually help thousands of people experiencing poverty, Public Counsel has fought to secure equal justice and opportunity for all for more than 50 years.
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